Tuesday, October 31, 2017

William Saunders and His Five Sons (and Daughter)

Of the nine children of James and Jane Saunders, it was the youngest son, William, who achieved the most fame outside the family circle. He, in turn, had five sons who all went on to have quite remarkable lives of their own. So let’s delve more deeply into the lives of Alice Miner’s Uncle William and her notable cousins.

William Saunders in 1897
Library and Archives Canada
Like the rest of the Saunders siblings, William (1836-1914) was born in Crediton and baptized at the Wesleyan Methodist church in Exeter. Shortly after his arrival in London at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a local pharmacist, John Salter, and by the time he was nineteen he had opened his own drugstore. Two years later, he married Sarah Agnes Robinson (daughter of the minister who had performed the wedding of Bertha Saunders and Richard Patton the year before), and they had six children: Annie Louisa (1858-1938), William Edwin (1861-1943), Henry Scholey (1864-1951), Charles Edward (1867-1937), Arthur Percy (1869-1953), and Frederick Albert (1875-1963).

William Saunders was a good businessman, but he was also interested in the science of pharmaceuticals. His interest in the medicinal properties of plants led him into the study of botany and then to entomology. In the garden of the Saunders home in London, he established an extensive orchard where he studied plant diseases caused by insects. In 1873, William purchased six acres of land outside the city where he continued his work in entomology and fruit and flower hybridization. These orchards were also early laboratories for the Saunders children, where they received their first lessons in natural history by helping their father with his work.

Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa, 1890
Friends of the Central Experimental Farm
By the mid-1880s, both William Edwin and Henry had qualified as pharmacists and were able to take over many aspects of the family business. This left their father free to pursue a new project: the establishment of Canada’s experimental farm system. In February 1886, Saunders submitted a report to the Minister of Agriculture describing what he had learned on his visits to numerous agricultural research stations in the United States, and proposing that Canada establish its own system of farms for research in cereal culture, dairying, animal husbandry, horticulture, forestry, and the application of chemistry and botany to agriculture. Soon thereafter, the Dominion Experimental Farms system was established, with William Saunders as its director.

In 1887, William, Sarah, Annie, and Fred moved to Ottawa, which was the home of the Central Experimental Farm. Four other farms were also established in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. The aim of all these farms was to produce practical results in the form of better varieties of grain, improved livestock, and fruit-trees that could thrive in the Canadian climate. One of its main goals was the development of strains of wheat suited to the climate of western Canada, and to this end, William Saunders appointed his son Charles to the position of Dominion Cerealist in 1903. 

Canadian postage stamp, issued in 2000,
honoring Sir Charles Saunders
Charles had studied chemistry at the University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins, but had been pursuing a career in music in Toronto. Now he took charge of a new department at the Central Experimental farm, the Division of Cereal Breeding and Experimentation and began work on what became known as Marquis wheat. The strains of wheat being grown in Saskatchewan and Alberta frequently matured too late and were damaged by frost. Marquis wheat matured earlier, produced yields as good or better than other varieties, and had excellent milling and baking qualities. By 1920, 90% of the wheat being grown in western Canada was Marquis wheat, and it was largely responsible for the boom in Canadian wheat exports. In 1934, Charles Saunders was knighted for his services to the Dominion.

Although Charles followed most closely in his father’s footsteps, all five sons shared William’s scientific interests. William Edwin ran the family pharmaceutical business, but he also engaged in a dizzying range of other activities, most related to the study and preservation of the natural world. He was an expert ornithologist and a founder of the Ontario Entomological Society, wrote a weekly nature column in the London Free Press from 1929 to 1943, and was instrumental in the preservation of what became Point Pelee National Park on Lake Erie—to name just a few of his accomplishments.

“Silvia Saunders” peony, named
after Percy’s oldest daughter
Arthur Percy and Frederick Albert also pursued careers in science. As his brother Charles had, Percy (as he was known) attended the University of Toronto and then went to Johns Hopkins, where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry. From 1900 to 1939, he was a professor of chemistry at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He also carried on the family botanical tradition through his work in the hybridization of peonies. Percy, his wife Louise Brownell, and their four children were beloved members of the Hamilton community, and were remembered fondly by notable students such as Ezra Pound and James Agee (who liked them so much he married daughter Olivia).

The youngest son, Fred, followed in his brothers’ footsteps to the University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins, where his area of study was physics. He taught at Haverford College, Syracuse University, Vassar College, and Harvard University. At Harvard he began research into the field of acoustics, and was able to unite his interests in music and science by studying the mechanical properties of musical instruments, particularly the violin family. Fred also shared the family love of nature, particularly ornithology, and he and his wife maintained a bird sanctuary at their country home.

Cover of Henry’s book Parodies on
Walt Whitman,
Henry Scholey’s path started off very much like that of his brothers. He shared their interests in nature and music, and followed William Edwin to the College of Pharmacy in Philadelphia. For thirteen years he worked with William to run the family business. But in 1898 he closed the business and decided to pursue his interest in music, playing the cello in various orchestras and string quartets in Toronto. What Henry ultimately became known for, however, was his extensive collection of material related to the life and work of Walt Whitman. This included every edition of all of Whitman’s writings (except for the first and last editions of Leaves of Grass). Henry also assembled 219 hand-made notebooks in which were gathered newspaper clippings, book reviews, and other printed material that referenced Whitman, and printed limited editions of books about Whitman. In 1932, Brown University purchased the entire Henry Scholey Saunders collection of Whitmaniana—some 15,000 items—for its library.

And what about Annie, the only daughter? As is so often the case, we know much less about the women of the Saunders family than we do about the men. She never married and continued to live with her parents until they died, after which she may have gone to live with one of her brothers in the United States for a time. By the early 1920s she was back in London, where she remained until her death in 1938, but what she was doing during all this time remains a mystery.

The five Saunders brothers in 1934: Percy, Henry, Fred,
Charles, and William
Also still something of a mystery is the extent of Alice Miner’s relationship with her cousins. The papers of William E. Saunders in the archives of the University of Western Ontario include some Heart’s Delight Farm greeting cards and calendars, which suggest that they kept in touch, at the very least. Certainly the Saunders brothers would have shared many interests with Alice and William Miner, from agriculture to literature. We hope that further study of Saunders family archival material will reveal more connections!


T. H. Anstey, “Sir Charles Edward Saunders,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 1985, article published May 16, 2008.

Dan Brock, “In Search of Annie: The Forgotten Saunders,” London and Middlesex Historical Society Newsletter, Summer 2016.

Harry F. Olson, “Frederick Albert Saunders, 1875-1963: A Biographical Memoir,” National Academy of Sciences, 1967.

Elsie M. Pomeroy, William Saunders and His Five Sons: The Story of the Marquis Wheat Family (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1956)

Ian M. Stewart, “SAUNDERS, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Universit√© Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/saunders_william_14E.html.

P. A. Taverner, “Memories of William Edwin Saunders, 1861-1943,” The Auk: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology 61, no. 3 (July 1944), 345-351.

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