Michael Eskin has a career in biochemistry and food science going back more than 50 years, but last time he was in the news it was for something different: music.
His song commemorating the centenary of the discovery of insulin, as reported by CBC, got picked up by the American Oil Chemists’ Society, and Eskin performed it at the organization’s annual general meeting.
He’s rapped about lipids for his students, written a song for Sesame Street Canada, and composed satirical ditties for his colleagues — like one tune called “Before food science, people did eat?”
While Eskin, 80, is a trained cantor and a folk singer, his true field of expertise is canola. Decades ago he and his colleagues at the University of Manitoba were some of the first to determine that canola oil was safe, healthy and palatable for human consumption.
For his leading canola research, Eskin will receive the Order of Manitoba, the province announced May 12.
“His work changed the agricultural landscape in Manitoba and Canada, making canola oil the third-largest major oilseed crop in the world,” the Order of Manitoba Advisory Council said in a news release.
Biochemistry in Birmingham
Eskin grew up in Birmingham, England. His interest in biochemistry began in high school thanks to a wonderful chemistry teacher who made the topic stimulating.
He also trained in classical music.
“My intention was to go into the opera to be the short tenor who dies in the arms of this big, voluptuous soprano, but it didn’t work out,” Eskin said.
When the opportunity came up to do an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Birmingham, Eskin jumped at the chance. He’d go on to do his PhD in toxicology.
“My thesis was dependent on the sacrifice of pigeons, mice and rats, and after that experience I said I really wanted to focus myself more on plants,” Eskin said.
Eskin arrived at the University of Manitoba in 1968, as breeders were developing what would become modern canola.
In 1961, says the University of Manitoba website, Baldur Stefansson began developing what was then called rapeseed. Rapeseed was high in erucic acid, which is toxic if consumed in high amounts, and had a pungent odour and biting taste.
In 1974, Stefansson produced a variety that was low in erucic acid and in the compound that created the bad taste. To distinguish it from common rapeseed, it became known as canola, derived from “Canadian oil,” according to the Canola Council of Canada.
Researchers Bruce McDonald and Vivian Bruce looked at the taste and nutritional content of canola oil. Eskin and Marion Vaisey-Genser examined the performance, stability, shelf life and sensory aspects of canola oil.
This produced data, which the now-Canola Council of Canada used to create a bulletin they could use to promote canola to dietitians, said Eskin.
Meanwhile, Bruce and McDonald demonstrated that canola oil was safe for human consumption and contained omega-3 fatty acids, generally considered to be heart healthy.
Cumulatively, this laid the groundwork for canola to become a worldwide food crop.
“We had no idea of the implications of the work that we were doing, but it was a very exciting time,” Eskin said.
Fifty years at U of M
In the decades following, as canola turned the Prairies into a yellow sea, Eskin continued to study canola among other topics. When the Co-operator spoke to him, he’d just finished his 17th academic book and was starting number 18 and 19.
One of these books takes up where a colleague left off — she was studying antioxidant properties of canola meal, but died of cancer in December. He will dedicate the book to her, Eskin said.
Eskin has spent the pandemic teaching two online classes with a total of about 500 students. After more than 50 years at the University of Manitoba, Eskin says he still enjoys his work.
“I’ve never considered this position a job. I’ve always considered it a privilege,” he said. “Being able to do something I love to do is really quite nice.
“I’ve had wonderful colleagues,” he said, adding these and the students have been the best part of the job.
At 80, he’s working less but still quite a lot. Eskin said his mother-in-law, who lived to 103, told him never to retire.
“If I felt I wasn’t contributing and didn’t feel that I had an impact in what I did, then there’d be no real point to continue,” Eskin said. “The last 10 years have been really quite a wonderful ride.”