ALUMNI-IN-ACTION ORAL HISTORY
R. S. Gowe, 0. A. C. '45
Ontario Agricultural College, 1945
Interviewed by Ross R. Hay
July 10, 1991
H This is an interview with Robb Sheldon Gowe, year 1945, conducted by Ross Hay, also of year '45, for the University of Guelph Alumni Association, the Alumni-in-Action Group. We are located in the rec room of 34 Elginfield Drive, Guelph. Rob, when you came to Guelph, you were living in Clarkson. Was that your home at that time?
G Yes, Ross, I lived on a small fruit farm, which was a part-time hobby farm for my Dad. But for the children it was a full time occupation, when they weren't at school.
H Did you always live in Clarkson, Robb?
G No, I was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, which is a suburb of Winnipeg. My Dad's business was out there. He then moved to Toronto with the family. We lived in the west end of Toronto, on the Kingsway for a few years. I think about 1929 or '30, we moved to Clarkson, when Dad bought the farm. He always had a farm in western Canada. He had a half a section in the Red River Valley for many years, which he finally sold. He liked farming, even though he was a businessman.
H What events in your life directed you to the Ontario Agricultural College?
G Can't remember exactly why I got interested in chickens, but I did. I started out in high school with a setting of Black Minorca eggs and raised them. I did fairly well until our cat decided it liked chicken dinners and dispensed with several of them. Then I shot the cat. That got me interested in chickens and my Dad encouraged me. We took the old chicken house that was on the farm and moved it away from the house. He didn't want the smelly things so close to the house. We put a good cement floor in it. With no charge for the capital expense I got financing for the operating costs to get into the chicken business. I got chickens from Fishers at Ayton, Ontario at the start. I had a hundred and fifty laying hens, if I remember correctly, when I was in the last couple of years of high school. I had an egg route, and I was quite wealthy as a student in those depression days, because of the egg business. That got me interested in agriculture. And then Dad was planning a new orchard, and we used to argue about how best to do it. I used to try and get bulletins from Guelph. Finally he wrote them about orchard practice, and obtained information which helped in the planning of the new five-acre orchard we were putting in.
H Well, you came to Guelph in 1941. Was there any initiation at that time?
G Before I answer that I might say that I was very much interested in the War that was on and
the possibility of doing something more immediate for the war effort. I applied to and was accepted at the University of Toronto in Aeronautical Engineering. I never can quite understand why I didn't go there, instead of to Guelph. I guess the lure of farming and the fact that I knew and liked farming was the reason I went to Guelph. But I often wonder if it wouldn't have been a better choice if I had gone the other way, but who knows.
H You were out of residence due to the war, with the Air Force occupying all of the residences at Guelph. Do you believe anything in your education was lost by not being in residence?
G I don't think anything was lost at all. I think I gained tremendously by not having to go through what I considered the childishness of student activities. I enjoyed the mature family with whom I lived. And I married one of the daughters, after I found a good house in which to live. So I really don't regret it at all. I wouldn't mind living in residence to-day where there is not so much nonsense now. But for my own personal thinking, I didn't like the dictatorial aspects of residence life and I really wasn't very much interested in the hi-jinks. I enjoyed my own kind of good times. I can appreciate others enjoying it, but not really me.
H I expected you to say something like that.
G You did eh?
H Yes. It's like you. You know Dr. MacLaughlin? He was in the Botany Department.
G And an excellent teacher.
H He was the first President of the University of Guelph, and he called our year - 1945 - the rebel year. I guess that was because we were not in residence.
G Oh, I don't think we were rebels in any important sense.
H I think he referred to us as rebels because we were different from the other years - the only year that was out of residence completely.
G We had to grow up faster than the rest. I think that was good.
H Of the profs who taught you, which one of them was the best in your opinion, and perhaps you'd tell me which one you thought was the poorest, in your opinion.
G Oh, boy! That was a long time ago. I can't remember the name of the professor in Chemistry, who taught us Organic and Inorganic Chemistry.
G McNabb. I was very much impressed because of his scientific attitude, and his interest in his subject and the way he taught it. He was very, very dedicated, and I guess he made a big impression on me. I also thought a lot of the people in Nutrition. I'm thinking particularly of people with whom I became friendly with later on, like Professor Stan Slinger. Even though I didn't go on in Nutrition, I got to know Stan quite well as an undergraduate, and he advised me with respect to graduate work.
If you really wanted to put it on the line, I would say Professor Chippy McLean was my best friend and the professor I enjoyed the most. He taught me to read. I mean taught me what to read, and how to look for books, and what to see in books. I became very grateful to him and the association with him. His absolutely delightful but crazy wife taught "grammah". My wife-to-be and I visited at their home quite frequently. I still visited with
him after I left college. When I came back into the Guelph area, I always called in to see them and say hello. He and Stan Slinger, I guess were the closest people I knew at the college on the academic side.
But there were others, you know. Bobby Weir taught Genetics, and he did a good job. I didn't do so well in his course, despite the fact I went on to be a geneticist. I think it's partly because of having too good a time that year. I enjoyed that he taught it seriously. If anything I disliked the Animal Science courses and I resented the fact that I was not interested in becoming an Animal Scientist, but because I was interested in poultry, I had to take an Animal Science course and the quality of teaching was appalling. There was a department head named Professor Knox who was rarely sober. Ross talks about the students having drunks, but he hardly ever got to class sober, and when he did, he didn't say anything that made any sense.
H What I remember Robb, is leaving the lectures, probably heading to Poultry, and I would say to you "That was a wonderful lecture! That was a beautiful lecture!" And your retort was, "Well what the hell did he teach us?" "Well he taught us this, he taught us that." "Yeh, but we learned that in our first year - this is our fourth year."
G You are right.
H But I want to tell you this, because probably nobody has ever mentioned it to you before, that an An. Hub. Professor told me that in the final exams you taught him. In other words, you knew more about the subject than he did.
G Well, I always felt I did. That was the crazy part about it. It was absolutely appalling.
H I came to realize your ability in reading books and that type of thing. You would take home a book on Animal Husbandry, and read the whole thing in a night. I just couldn't fathom that at all. So Professor McLean must have done a terrific job. You must have had that knowledge though, or some of it, before you came to Guelph.
G Well, my Dad liked to read. Then he was a businessman. In high school maybe we learned a little. I think it's partly your environment and partly your interest. It was after the second or third year at Guelph, that I decided that really I was not interested in stopping. I wanted to go on and do research, and get more in-depth education. I think the Animal Science courses, particularly, discouraged me so much that I felt it so superficial compared to - say Chemistry or even some of the better courses in Field Husbandry.
H After graduation from 0.A.C., did you go immediately go into post graduate work, or did you do something else?
G Let me first say a word about this. When I was coming to the end of my fourth year, I decided to buckle down again. I hadn't done too well in the second and third year, because I had a good time and was discouraged. I decided I wanted to go on and I knew I had to have some academic record to gone on. I asked Stan Slinger about going on and where to go, and how to look for postgraduate work. And Stan said, "Well, why don't I come and take a Masters with them at the university?" It was all they got at the College in those days. That's all they gave. And so I said, "I wasn't really interested in nutrition, but I'd consider it."
Anyway, he went and had a discussion with the Head of the Department, and I think the answer shows how terribly narrow Guelph was at that time. It was Dr. Marcellus, and he came back and told me - this was the week before we graduated - "Rob", he said, "I talked with Marcellus about your staying on to do your Masters, and he said, the answer was absolutely, no." And he said, "You know the reason was?" He said, "We'll have nothing to do with that socialist and atheist, in our College." You know I was so flabbergasted. I said, "Sandy, did he say anything about whether I was academically capable of doing the job?" Oh no, no.
It was the fact that I had socialist tendencies and was an atheist. I'd given several speeches in the public speaking courses, on philosophy and one thing and another, I guess. I'd got around the idea that it was these two things, he described me as, and I really think that that was typical of the College, in those days. So many of the people in charge had such narrow insight, yet there were people like Chippy McLean that were not. They were slowly growing out of that mediaeval stage. I'm glad I left.
I then started to write to universities in the United States, to go into graduate work. I worked for the Ontario Government, blood-testing poultry for several months, until I obtained an Assistantship at Cornell University. I was accepted to work with Professor Hunt, who's incidentally, a graduate of OAC, and a very strong supporter of OAC, and has given a lot of money and support to the College over the years. His father, I think, was on the staff of OAC for years.
H Did you take a Masters, or did you go right into a Doctorate?
G I took my Masters degree at Cornell, and then took my PhD at Cornell following that.
H What was your PhD in?
G My PhD was in Animal Genetics, with minors in Animal Physiology and Endocrinology.
H I heard at one time that you obtained your Dr.'s degree at Cornell with a ninety-one percent average? Is that statement correct?
G I don't know what the average might have been. A lot of the things you do in the graduate work, they don't give you marks, like for a PhD Thesis. But I had fairly high marks. I can't recall ever having added up the course work. I had to take a lot of courses, because OAC was so deficient. We had always used the white cane, poked the horse in the side, or the cow in the side, or stand its foot a little bit back, so its back would hump less, or courses of endless judging, by Raithby, that didn't make any sense. Much that he said didn't make any sense, I might add, but that's another man that I really never had much respect for - because of the endless judging.
When I left Guelph, I had to get an education fast. I really shouldn't have been in advanced endocrinology. I hadn't had the beginning course in Physiology back at Guelph. OAC was impossible in those days. So I had, on my own, to take these courses very fast. I took the Veterinary Physiology and all the graduate school Veterinary Physiology in two years. I could tell you that was a load. Comparative Anatomy and other subjects were taken in the School of Zoology, 'til I got the biological background one needs. With courses in Statistics,
Genetics and other things, there were an awful lot of pickup courses that I required that should not have been necessary. If you were going to the University of Guelph now and took your graduate work anywhere else you would now have the proper background courses. They're now not at all like they used to be in Animal Science. I had a high academic record because I felt that I should work, even if I didn't have any doubts in my mind like I did for a while at Guelph, because I was unhappy with the way things were going. I knew where I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to do research. The Professors were exceedingly stimulating. The course work was stimulating. The science was on the leading edge and it was fun. I worked many, many hours of the day and night.
H When did you receive your Dr.'s degree at Cornell?
G In 1949.
H And then, where to after Cornell?
G After Cornell, I went to the Experimental Farm Service of the Canada Department of Agriculture, now - Agriculture Canada - and to the Poultry Division. I was put in as Head of the Poultry Breeding Unit. I was a green PhD, which was crazy in itself, but they were short of scientists. They'd lost their scientists, because they hadn't paid them well, to the United States - all of them, and so I was given a fairly responsible job. I took on twelve farms, branch farms with poultry breeding on them plus the central farm, which was also my responsibility. It was awesome for a green PhD. Fortunately they were much more tolerant than I would have been, myself, in those days, because I mean they didn't have anybody else, and they had to be tolerant, I guess.
H But you succeeded?
G Well, I think we did. We started some research that was, I think, revolutionary. I did make a contribution, the selection study in particular, that I started in those days. It went for thirty generations, which was the longest reported selection study, set up with adequate controls and multiple populations. Really broad scientific conclusions could be made from it, where a lot of the other studies never could make them. There wasn't the broad basis of the stocks or the necessary controls on the work.
H You did other work. Did you help the Shaver Poultry Breeding Farm and Don Shaver establish the Shaver Star-cross 288?
G I established the breeding program, which is multiple phase and it went on throughout all the years. After I became Director, I still carried on that study. I did a lot of research in Physiology and in Artificial Insemination, and other things in the earlier years. Our responsibility, as a Federal Research Agency, was to help the industry wherever we could. Shaver came to us and asked for help and we gave them help - what we could - when we could - as we could. And this worked out, fairly successfully in many ways, because often times he would provide us with different genomes or stocks that we needed for our research without cost. We would do co-operative experiments that were both useful to his business and useful to advancing knowledge in general for the industry. Co-operative work varied from year to year. Sometimes there'd be nothing going on - sometimes there'd be co-
operative research that ran for two or three years at a time.
H You didn't work with Shaver, because it was Shaver. It was to help the Poultry Industry, in general.
G The Canadian Poultry Industry and any Canadian poultry breeder, we would help. And we did, and from time to time help others, all the way from turkey breeders to duck breeders. We visited their premises and made recommendations on their breeding programs, but they usually took it as a one shot effort. The Shavers kept coming back year after year. He would phone up for advice on technical matters. We'd try and find the right person who knew what the answers were from Nutrition to Physiology. If it was breeding I usually tried to help him myself, because it kept me in contact with their problems.
H You started in Breeding. Where did you end up with the Experimental Farm? You had several jobs there before you left them.
G I was the Head of the Breeding Unit of the Poultry Division until 1959. At that time they reorganized the whole research operations in the department and formed what they called the Research Branch. They amalgamated the Animal Chemistry Unit and the Animal Husbandry Division and the Poultry Division into what they called the Animal Research Institute. Then I became Head of the Animal Genetics Unit. That included all animals and poultry, and I was in the Animal Research Institute from '59 'til '65. Although I carried on my own poultry-breeding program, my major responsibility then was in giving some direction to the very large program in cattle, sheep and pigs. In 1965, I was appointed Director of the Animal Research Centre - which meant not only animal breeding, but, Nutrition, Biochemistry, Physiology and all the other aspects of the Institute.
In 1965, when I was appointed director, the main task facing me was the moving of the whole Animal Research Institute from the Central Experimental Farm to a farm on the edge of Ottawa - actually in Nepean. And this was still in the very raw state, when I was appointed. The Federal Agency responsible had amalgamated a whole lot of farms to give a contiguous block of land of twenty-eight hundred acres. Nothing had been done with it. Some of the houses had been removed and some of the old farm barns had been torn down. There was one or two left in reasonably good shape, but nothing else was done.
My job was to try and get the buildings up and to establish a new centre out there. Also to get the program organized, how should I say, with more problem solving effort, rather than a pure science effort, which had been the tradition before. You have to understand the Research Branch was an amalgamation of the Science Service and the Experimental Farm Service. And the Science Service philosophy was that researchers were hired to do research and it didn’t matter how pure it was, along as it was research. Whereas the Experimental Farm people were generally hired to do research that was beneficial to the farmers. Under the new administration, which was gradually beginning to change its thinking, my job was to get the research organized along lines that would be closer to problem solving, without sacrificing the quality of the research. And as fast as possible to move the science away from curiosity research to something that was more practical.
Combined with moving the facilities and changing the program, that was a full job ahead. Over the next few years, we developed, I guess forty animal buildings on the new premises, and a whole system of roadways, sewers, waterlines, and telephones and safety precautions and god knows what all. I worked very closely with Public Works and with the technical committees I had set up. I had to fight with Public Works, I might add, to get buildings that were rational and useful. It was an enormous job - took an enormous amount of energy, but I think we achieved it. The program was slower to change, but was changed by the time I left there and retired in 1969. All of the research was directed towards solving problems for the industry, and in keeping on track with respect to the major needs of the industry - as far as could be seen by the committees and the people that were associated with this work, at that time. And the buildings were functional and practical.
H So things changed for you.
G Then we got Mulroney. It’s all been ruined. I have to add that, because it’s true. He destroyed the Animal Research by not supporting it. They sold most of the cows, and all of the sheep, and getting rid of the staff as fast as they could, by golden handshakes and early retirements and god knows what all. Just trying to get rid of us.
H When did you leave? What year did you leave?
G In 1986.
H And came to work for Shaver?
G No. I stayed on there for approximately a year. I stayed on as what they called a Scientist Emeritus, and was working on some papers. I was asked to consult with Shavers, which I was free to do at that time as I was no longer being paid by the government. I consulted with Shavers one week a month. That became quite onerous to go down to this part of the world for one week a month. Then I was asked to come on full-time and to take over as director of their research operations, which had previously been directed by Mr. Shaver himself. They were at a loss as to where to go when he would no longer be with the company. And so I was finally persuaded to come. We moved to Kitchener and I worked in Cambridge. I worked in Cambridge for over two years, and that was a very worthwhile experience. But I would have been happier if they hadn’t have been bought out by a French company. I wished that ownership had remained in Canada. They became fully owned by Cargill.
G They were fully owned by Cargill and then were bought out and fully owned by a French company, Isa France, un Institute Selection Animal, which is owned by Meriux. So the French Government owns the Canadian poultry breeding company now, although our government is dead against the government owning anything.
H You’re now doing some work with Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph?
G Yes. I was asked, after I retired from Shavers, by Ted Burnside from the Animal and Poultry Science Department, to do some work for the Institute for Livestock Improvement.
Ted is the Director of that Institute, and he asked me to join the group and strengthen their Poultry Breeding side. There is only one scientist in poultry, who is mainly concerned with poultry breeding - Dr. Ian Macmillan - and he thought with my experience, I might be able to contribute to the group. Didn’t have any money
to pay me, but (chuckle) I could participate. I was very happy to do so, because it gave me the advantages of keeping up to date with the seminars, participating and listening, access to the library, and contacts, because I am carrying on with some research, both in co-operation with some of the Guelph professors and with some of the colleagues that I worked with in Ottawa.
H Well, are you doing any research here at the University?
G I’m not actually doing any hands on research. I’m using and analyzing data from studies that we conducted in Ottawa. There’s not really sufficient or adequate space here to do any selection or breeding studies. It takes large populations to do that. But the thirty year selection study that I conducted in Ottawa has a mountain of data yet to be explored. Even though some has been published, there is still much more to do. And so it’s in connection with this kind of thing - working with the Ottawa people and the Guelph people on select pieces of the data.
I sit on a graduate student’s committee and give some practical help. He comes from Sri Lanka, and needs somebody to help him who knows something about how they actually do breed chickens, not theoretically breed them, but actually breed them. I can help him a bit, because he’s going to have to actually breed chickens and when he gets back to Sri Lanka. He needs the scientific advice and knowledge he’s getting from his experience with his PhD work and his courses, but he also needs some practical help, which I can give him.
I’ve also done some artificial insemination to help Dr. Etches in the experiment he’s running in co-operation with Mr. Shaver. I went out and artificially inseminated a thousand chickens for them over a few days. Still glad I can still do it. Get ninety-seven percent fertility to.
H So now I’m going to change the subject and get to your family. When did you marry Christa?
G Oh, that’s so long ago...
H 1946, the year after you graduated?
G Yes, that’s right.
H And, how many children do you have?
G We have five children, but three of them are our children and two of them are children that Christa had from a previous marriage.
H Is there anything else you’d like to put on tape concerning your life, or your work?
G Anything else I’d like to put on tape.
H Yes. I know one thing that you might comment on is your feeling towards the University of Guelph now, as compared to when you graduated.
G When I graduated, there was no doubt about it that I had mixed feelings. Very, very strong positive feelings about certain people, or certain courses, and very negative feelings about other courses and things and how academically deficient they were. I would hate it to be said or thought, that the total of the thing was negative. I don’t think it was. I’m sure it wasn’t. And I can’t recall all the good points as well as I should.
I was so discouraged in those days, but I think I mentioned several of the things that I thought were very excellent, here.
But now the University is a world recognized university. I wouldn’t be here working with these people, if I didn’t think so. It’s a highly respected university in the area that I’m interested in, quantitative genetics and animal/poultry breeding. It’s probably one of the leading institutions in the world, one of the five or ten leading institutions, if not the top. But, you know, that’s always argumentative as whether it’s the top, but it’s one of the top ten institutions in the world in animal breeding and in quantitative genetics. And there’s an excellent staff. So it’s an ideal place for me, because you can get information and consultation in almost anything in these areas here. And so, I enjoy that experience and if I go a few years more, I hope to be able to make my contribution - small as it will be within that framework, which is easier to make, than if you’re totally isolated from it.
Now I might say Ross, that one of the things that gave me a great deal of satisfaction, other than my private life, is my work with hospitals. There was a period in my life when I was up against a stone wall, when I was Director of the Animal Research Centre, where I couldn’t get things moving, and I was anxious to keep moving very fast. Governments move when they have money, or when they think they have money. And, so I got involved with hospitals.
I was asked, almost by accident, to serve on a committee to start a hospital for the city of Nepean. I became involved right from the very beginning. We went through all the stages from developing the plans to getting the hospital up and running. I was on the executive for some fifteen years and wound up serving as Chairman of the Board. I was interested very much in the regional planning systems that were then being encouraged by the government of Ontario. I think the Davis government started them and I got involved in that through our hospital the Queensway-Carlton Hospital, when I was on the executive.
There were eleven hospitals in this region. I got interested in the centralization of services for these hospitals. I worked with two committees, one on laundry centralization, and one on food centralization. I was chairman of three other committees on centralization of laboratory services, computer services and one other that I have forgotten. Anyway, these were tremendous experiences. You went to work with a vast variety of people, and eleven hospitals, all with their own different ideas of how things should be done and with their own empires to be defended. It was a real challenge to get them to co-operate. And I think it was a credit to the leaders of the movement and to those of us who worked like the devil on it, that we actually got all these centralization services going.
And they’ve proven to be quite successful. The central laundries were exceedingly successful. Saved a lot of money for the whole Ottawa region. The food services provided high quality food and people were amazed at the quality of the centralized food service. The centralized laboratory service was very much more difficult to get into because of the empires that we were treading on. The medical doctors didn’t like to give up anything, but in the end success was achieved. That enabled a lot of things to be done more sensibly and more rationally, than when everybody tries to duplicate everything everywhere, and provide all services to everybody, which can’t be done economically and efficiently.
But the main thing about it was we learned how to work with people, and the - slowness with which you have to go step-by-step to get these kind of things carried out. You didn’t get in the bow overnight. You got things done just slowly working at them.. I think it helped in my work with the Centre, because I took a long time and worked like the devil over many years to get that Centre developed. It’s a great experience in terms of working with people and getting people to co-operate. I learned one thing, very strongly right at the beginning. It didn’t matter how technically right you are, if you don’t have everybody with you it fails.
I can recall the first committee that I was given chairmanship of. It was to get the computer systems established. I had a fair knowledge of all this stuff as I had developed computer systems for our poultry projects and I knew a lot about how you went about it. I wasn’t actually a programmer or a detail man, myself. I knew all about the policies of the things, and I didn’t mind the challenge. And so I went about it the way I thought was best. I got the best most respected technical people to advise on this subject. With two or three of the hospitals that had the most advanced systems going, we developed a rather good clean-cut program that was going to work This would have really saved a lot of money. When brought up to the group, it failed miserably. They would just stonewall and turn it down and I was very, very disappointed. And of course, the reason it was turned down was three hospitals out of eleven on the committee.
One or two years later, the committee got revived and I was chairman again. We had eleven bloody hospitals on the committee this time. We didn’t get as good a centralized system going as before, but we got it approved. If you want people to join in and get into these things, you better get them involved. If they’re not involved they stonewall. And these hospitals have a lot of independence. People in Ottawa should know and in Guelph they should know this.
You’ve got to get them co-operating and finally get them all going in the same direction. They could see their way but were concerned about their jobs. We got some of the benefits of centralization without the loss of everybody’s job. You know it was a compromise all the way down the line, but we made progress. I’ve heard since they’ve gone quite a bit further in a slightly different direction, but it was a start. But, I say, the process is what got me. I learned that when I went back to my Centre. I never tried to do anything without getting everybody involved. Never tried to get the scientists into multi-disciplinary groups, which I formed, or anything else to get repulsed. Occasionally you have to get rather rough and browbeat them a bit, but you have to get them all involved, and never try to do it without getting all the players involved. You know they must provide input. Their input is very important. They know a lot more about what they’re doing than you do, anyway. So this whole business of organization and working with people is very important. That stood me in good stead in the years after that, working with Shavers for example. You never tried to get things going through the geneticists there without getting them all involved.
H Very good, Robb. It’s a wonderful rundown of a very, very, busy life. I’m going to close this off now with this comment. We expected Robb to be an outstanding personage in the fast developing poultry industry. Now that was written in your Libranni of 1945. Not only in the poultry industry, but also throughout your whole life.