Walter Bushuk, one of Canada’s most celebrated cereal chemists, died in Winnipeg Oct. 18 at 88 years of age.
When Bushuk started school in Garland, Manitoba in September 1939, he was 10 and only knew a few words of English.
Seventeen years later, the son of Eastern European peasant farmers who came to Canada just days ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War, had earned a PhD in physical chemistry from McGill University and would go on to become internationally known and respected in his field.
Bushuk, whose research focused mainly on wheat quality, worked at the Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Research Laboratory, Ogilvie Flour Mills and the Canadian International Grains Institute, but for most of his career he was a professor in the department of plant science, at the University of Manitoba.
Bushuk retired in 1993, but continued research as professor emeritus.
In 2003, he was appointed Member of the Order of Canada for outstanding lifetime contributions in research and teaching.
Bushuk attributed much of his success in scientific research to the unfailing love and support of his wife Jean and other members of his family, his obituary says.
Bushuk received many international awards, including an Honorary LL.D. (Poznan, Poland), three international scientific medals, and fellowships from five scientific societies, including The Royal Society of Canada (F.R.S.C.) and the Osborne Medal from the American Association of Cereal Chemists.
In May 2001 Bushuk received the first ‘Distinguished Career Award’ in the academic category at the second International Wheat Quality conference in Manhattan, Kansas.
In October 2001 a special scientific symposium — ‘Wheat Quality Elucidation: the Bushuk Legacy’ — was held in Charlotte, South Carolina, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association of Cereal Chemists. Fifteen of Bushuk’s former students and research colleagues from seven nations presented scientific papers, which will be published as a book in honour of their mentor.
Together with his students and scientific colleagues, Bushuk published more than 300 scientific and technical articles and edited several books.
More than 40 scientists from 27 countries came to Winnipeg to train with Bushuk.
Between 1986 and 1996 Bushuk worked on developing an objective grading machine — the so-called “black box.”
While a black box doesn’t exist yet, Bushuk said in a 2001 interview his research, which married a camera with a computer, had made advances.
“All the information we had at that time showed it should be possible,” he said. “We could determine vitreousness, sprouting, fusarium, bleaching, but when we tried variety identification, we ran into some difficulties. The kernels of some varieties are unique and some are not. So we had to find a way to improve the technology.”
Bushuk predicted a rapid and affordable objective assessment system for wheat quality will be reality someday.
Bushuk was also an early critic of Western Canada’s kernel visual distinguishability (KVD) system that required wheats intended for a certain class to have the distinct kernel appearance of that class.
KVD made it easier for grain buyers to segregate wheat purchases and assure buyers got what they ordered, but wheat breeders said it was an impediment to increasing yields.
Bushuk suggested KVD could be replaced by farmers “declaring” what variety they were delivering.
KVD ended in 2008 and the declaration system was adopted. The Canadian Grain Commission says the declaration system is working.
Serendipity, often the scientist’s friend, loomed large in Bushuk’s life, including the family’s arrival in Canada.
It might be unexpected for a boy who couldn’t speak English at the start of his academic career to attain the heights Bushuk did, but that reflected a family commitment to education that fuelled the family’s move.
One of the reasons his parents left Jakovichi, which was then in Poland and is now in Belarus, was so their children would have access to a better education.
As ethnic Belarusians Bushuk’s father knew his children wouldn’t have access to a good education in Poland. He even picked his 80-acre farm at Garland because it was close to the school.
Life in Canada was tough to start, Bushuk said.
“The first couple of years were rather difficult for my parents,” he said during the 2001 interview, clearing his throat and misty eyed, “because they left everybody — their brothers and sisters and friends and came to a strange country.”
Bushuk said he never had any desire to follow his father and farm. But he knew his parents were “quietly proud” of his education.
“I remember helping my father pick stones after I had my PhD and I was home for a bit of a holiday,” Bushuk said. “Here we are sitting on the stoneboat and unloading it — I can’t think of anything less inspiring — and my father had a big grin on his face and says, ‘I just never thought I’d have a guy with a PhD helping me pick stones.’”