Dean Emeritus (1967 – 1975)

Michael Shaw was born in the West Indies in 1924 and came to Canada in 1943. He received a BSc (Hons Botany) from McGill University in 1946 and MSc and PhD degrees in Botany and Plant Pathology from Macdonald College of McGill in 1947 and 1949, respectively. Following a period as a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in Cambridge, England, Dr Shaw joined the Department of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan as an Assistant Professor in 1950 and became Professor and Head of the Department in 1961. An active scientist, Dr Shaw conducted research on the physiology and biochemistry of the host-parasite relations of rust fungi on wheat and flax. The severe epidemic of wheat rust in the prairies in the 1950’s had prompted Dr Shaw to undertake research on this important disease.

In 1967 Dr Shaw came to UBC as Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and served as Dean until until his appointment as UBC Vice-President in 1975. During his Deanship the Faculty name was changed to the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences and the Faculty experienced considerable growth and development. His philosphy was that Faculties of Agriculture should continue to expand because of the vital importance of food production. His early concern about agriculture as an ecosystem led to the agro-ecosystem approach forming a frame-work for the curricula in the Faculty. In addition to his UBC activities he was active in national scientific and academic associations. He initiated the formation of the Association of Faculties of Agriculture in Canada and was President of this group in 1974-75.

Dr Shaw received several prestigous honours and distinctions. Particularly noteworthy were his election to the Royal Society of Canada in 1962, the honorary DSc degree he received from his alma mater, McGill University, in 1975 and the Royal Society of Canada’s Flavelle Medal, their highest award for research achievments in the biological sciences, bestowed in 1976. The citation for the Flavelle Medal read (in part) as follows:

“The Flavelle Medal is awarded to Dr Michael Shaw for his outstanding research on rust fungi, which cause severe economic losses in wheat and flax. By detailed analysis of these host plants during infection, Dr Shaw and his collaborators have elucidated the complex interactions which occur between the parasite and its host. Of major importance is their finding that the fungus alters the expression of host genes by causing synthesis of specific nucleic acids. More recently, Dr Shaw’s group has successfully cultured these rust fungi in isolation from their hosts. This is an exciting development and will allow more detailed work on the biochemistry of these important pathogens.

Dr Shaw has been editor of the Canadian Journal of Botany since 1967 and has served on many advisory committees related to agricultural research and development. Despite many commitments he remains a highly productive research scientist.

Dr Shaw retired in 1989 after a distinguished association of 22 years with UBC and was named University Professor and Dean Emeritus. In recognition of his distinguished service to the university and to agricultural science a scholarship fund was established in his name. In retirement he maintained an active interest in agricultural research and in academic affairs.

In 2003 Dr Shaw received the degree of DSc (honoris causa) from UBC. His citation read as follows:

“Mr CHANCELLOR, in a world where many go hungry and debates over food supply and food quality fill the news every day, the science of agriculture has never been more important. Michael Shaw has been an international leader of this critical science for more than 40 years. Dr Shaw came to UBC in 1967 and served with great distinction as both the Dean of Agricultural Sciences and as Vice-president, Academic. During his career, he achieved international recognition as a plant pathologist who has made pioneering contributions to research on the physiology and biochemistry of host-parasite relationships. Dr Shaw has also had an equally outstanding career as a leader in university affairs. A University Professor is one of the highest honours bestowed by UBC on its faculty. Dr. Shaw brought vision and commitment to his years of academic service. He encouraged the creation of many new programs and he supported funds for university programs in the interior and the north of BC that enhanced access for students from the entire province. His leadership and administration were grounded in the highest academic standards and were defended on the basis of what was best for UBC students and for the province.

Mr Chancellor, for his substantial international impact in the world of plant sciences and his contribution to this university, I ask you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, upon MICHAEL SHAW.”

In an article in its journal celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Phytopathological Society Dr Shaw described how he became “An accidental plant pathologist” and embarked on his illustrious career.

“Three unrelated chance events led to my accidental career in plant pathology. First, Prof G W Scarth’s retirement from the Department of Botany at McGill University in 1946: second, the outbreak of the Korean war in June 1950; and third, the wheat stem rust epidemic that raged on the Canadian prairies from 1952 or 3 to 1955.

If Scarth had not retired a month after I graduated with a BSc in botany at McGill in May 1946 he would not have taken me to Macdonald College to work for a PhD in Plant Physiology under his supervision. There I found myself in the Department of Plant Pathology headed by Prof J G Coulson. Coulson was a long-time friend of Scarth’s and had offered him space and facilities to continue research in his retirement. I became Scarth’s only and, as it turned out, last graduate student. As my future unfolded it became clear that my sojourn in the Department of Plant Pathology gave me an invaluable preparation for the research on host-pathogen relations that I was to undertake later. The guidance of these two men, Scarth the physiologist and Coulson the plant pathologist had a profound and lasting impact on my career.

If Canada had not become involved in the Korean War the National Research Council would not have recalled its overseas post-doctoral fellows for 1949 after only one year abroad and I would not have left the Botany School at Cambridge to return to Canada in 1950. As it was, with the support of Scarth & Coulson I became the first plant physiologist ever to be appointed to the Faculty of the University of Saskatchewan.

Finally, if Race 15B of the wheat stem rust had not become a serious problem I would not have been asked by Dr W P Thompson, President of the University of Saskatchewan to work on “the physiology of rust” as he put it.

With the optimism of youth and having taken Prof Coulson’s famously exhaustive graduate course “The Principles of Phytopathology”, I happily accepted the President’s proposal and the research funds that came with it. Dr Thompson actually appeared unannounced at my office to tell me about his proposal. I remember being somewhat taken aback and for a moment wondered what sin I could possibly have committed to warrant a visit from on high!

When I arrived in the Biology Dept at the University of Saskatchewan in September 1950 Sam Samborski and Clayton Person were working on their Masters degrees, Sam in plant pathology with Prof T C Vanterpool and Clayt in genetics with Prof T J Arnason. That winter I showed Sam how to do some sugar analyses he needed for his thesis and we began a friendship which lasted a lifetime. I was 26 at the time, very much the junior member of the Department, and I remember being chastised by the then Department Head for fraternising too much with the graduate students because I often had coffee with Sam and Clayt. In 1951 Sam & Clayt both went off to McGill, Clayt to the Department of Genetics and Sam to the Department of Plant Pathology at Macdonald College, where he no doubt took Coulson’s course on ‘The Principles’.

In 1953, with funding provided by an extra-mural grant from Canada Agriculture I lured Sam back to Saskatoon as my research associate. He completed his PhD from McGill, incorporating some of the work we did together on the effects of rust infection on the uptake and distribution of radioactive carbon and phosphorus. Our collaboration lasted until 1956 when Sam joined the Winnipeg Rust Lab where he remained throughout his distinguished career. Sam and I always looked back on the years we worked together as one of the most enjoyable periods in our research lives. We learned a lot from each other. Sam taught me much more than how to hunt ducks on the prairie but he taught me that too.

After the editor of the Annual Review of Plant Physiology invited me to write a review on “The physiology and host-parasite relations of the rusts” I was asked to transfer it to Volume 1 (1963) of the new Annual Review of Plant Pathology. I agreed, realizing that without meaning to I had come to be recognised as a plant pathologist and decided to join the CPS.

That is the story of how I accidentally became a plant pathologist of sorts. Chance has been kind to me throughout my life. Now, at eighty, as I look back it is the friendships I made along the way that made it all worthwhile.”

In 2008 Dr Shaw received one of the nine LFS Centenary Awards which recognized the outstanding achievements of the UBC Faculty.

Dr. Shaw passed away on March 25, 2013.

R Blair and C R Nichols, 2005; updated 2013.