Charles was the least robust of them all but perhaps had the highest standards. Educated at U of T and Johns Hopkins U, he was a professor of chemistry at Central U, Ky, in 1892-93 and then devoted 1894-1903 to the study of music and teaching of voice. In 1903 his father, recognizing his meticulous standards and perseverence, appointed him to the Experimental Farms Service as experimentalist. (The title became cerealist in 1905 and Dominion cerealist in 1910.)
Saunders immediately applied scientific methods to his new task and spent summers selecting individual heads of wheat from breeding material that previously had been selected in mass. From a cross of Hard Red Calcutta by Red Fife, made in 1892 by his brother A.P. Saunders, a new variety, Markham, resulted.
Markham did not produce uniform offspring, however, even though many plants had desirable characteristics. Saunders carefully selected individual heads from early plants that had stiff straw. He emphasized that seed from each plant was grown separately with no mixing of strains. Selection was rigorous, only the top lines being kept. He determined which lines had strong gluten by chewing a sample of kernels, and he introduced the baking of small loaves to measure volume. The best strain was named Marquis. In 1907 all surplus seed was sent to Indian Head, Sask, for further testing.
According to Saunders's annual reports, the response of Marquis to Saskatchewan conditions was phenomenal. It was a week earlier than Red Fife, produced high yields and made excellent bread. Marquis remains the standard for bread making. By 1909 sufficient seed had been produced to permit its distribution to 407 farmers. The following year 2112 farmers received samples. Wheat could now be grown confidently in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where Red Fife frequently matured too late and was damaged by frost.
By 1920, 90% of the wheat grown in western Canada was Marquis and a large acreage was grown in the US. Marquis was the variety that matured early, thus avoiding damage from frost. It yielded as well as, or better than, any other early variety. It produced a "strong" flour and therefore was in demand by the millers and bakers of the world. Marquis was the variety that made Canada famous for its hard red spring wheat and annually produced millions of dollars in export revenue for Canadian farmers and Canada. Saunders also applied his single-line selection methods to barley, oats, peas, beans and flax and introduced several new excellent varieties of each kind of crop.
In 1922, after 19 years as a plant breeder, Saunders suffered a physical breakdown and resigned his position. He went to Paris where he studied French literature at the Sorbonne for 3 years. He returned to Ottawa but moved to Toronto in 1928. He was knighted in 1934. He continued to lecture on both Marquis wheat and the French language. Music was his major consolation until his death.
Author T.H. ANSTEY
Links to Other Sites
Charles Edward Saunders
A profile of Charles Saunders from the Canada Science and Technology Museum Hall of Fame.
See a video about Charles Saunders experiments that led to the development of the highly successful strain of Marquis wheat. From Science.gc.ca.
Sir Charles Edward Saunders, Dominion Cerealist
A biography of Charles Saunders, the Canadian scientist who developed Marquis wheat from the website "Named Things in Chemistry & Physics," York University.
From a single seed
An account of the surprising origins of Marquis wheat from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
The Wheat That Won The West
See an academic paper that examines the economic impact of the development of Marquis wheat in Canada. Prepared by: Amy McInnis for “Winning the Prairie Gamble: The Saskatchewan Story,” May 11, 2004.