How McGill alum and Canadian wheat warrior Margaret Newton helped fight against a rusty menace

Published: 20 February 2024

In the second installment of their "brief history of wheat" series for Good News Grows, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada tells the story of McGill alum Margaret Newton (BSA 1918, MSc 1919) and her rise in the world of Canadian agriculture.

Margaret Newton, hero of Canadian wheat

Born in Montreal in 1887, Margaret Newton was a lifelong learner with a curious mind. She began her career as a teacher, but after a fateful visit to her brother studying at McGill University’s Faculty of Agriculture, she applied to the agriculture program herself. Though confident in her decision, as a young, unmarried woman, Margaret's educational journey would pit her against prejudice every step of the way.

After much advocating to the McGill's admissions office, Margaret was officially accepted in 1914, the only woman in a group of 50 men. Margaret's time at McGill was characterized by a fearless determination, breaking barriers inside and outside the classroom—even overturning an archaic rule barring female students from using the labs after a strict 10 p.m. curfew.

Specializing in plant pathology, Margaret began researching the disease that would define her career: wheat stem rust. Her incredible work in this area led to a better understanding of the diversity between rust strains and how wheat was infected.

In 1924, Margaret was appointed lead researcher of the newly established Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Rust Research Laboratory, where she worked tirelessly with her team to protect farmers’ fields from disease, eventually reducing the Canadian wheat lost from rust to almost zero.

Margaret’s dedication helped her become the first woman to obtain a degree from McGill University’s agricultural program. She also earned a Master of Science degree at McGill and a Ph.D. in agriculture science at the University of Minnesota—the first woman in Canada to hold such an achievement.

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