Huntsman: The Fisherman's Friend

Explore the career of Archibald Huntsman, a strong leader, a pioneering oceanographer and an expert biologist on Atlantic salmon.
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Although this 40‑million square kilometre body of water has been fished by humans for hundreds of years, little was known about the huge array of aquatic animals and plants that lived beneath its surface.  It was too alien a world for humans to explore.  But toward the end of the 19th century, there was very little choice.  Throughout the eastern North Atlantic the fish began to disappear and no one knew why.

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In this day and age it is hard to credit the degree to which the disappearance of the fish constituted an international crisis for people on both sides of the North Atlantic.  A huge food supply, a major item of commerce and a large source of employment was endangered.

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Greatly alarmed, fishing nations responded to the crisis by initiating ambitious hatchery programs in a vain effort to replace missing fish.  They also built new biological stations on their shores dedicated to developing a dynamic new aquatic science that could lead them to an understanding of what was happening in the silent world below. Although the problem in the western Atlantic at that time was more perceived than real, the anxiety was just as great as in the eastern Atlantic.

The young nation of Canada, with a population of 5 million, few financial resources and the longest coastline in the world, responded under the direction of noted fish embryologist, Dr. E.E. Prince, appointed by Ottawa in 1893 as the Dominion Commissioner of Fisheries. Under his direction the new Board of Management began field studies at St. Andrews, New Brunswick, using a primitive scow with a laboratory perched on top and manned by volunteers and science professors drawn primarily from the University of Toronto.

After the scow was damaged, permanently beached and then abandoned in 1907, it was replaced in 1908 by this modest biological station erected at St. Andrews, poorly equipped and undermanned with only two tiny boats in which to venture offshore. But all that would change because of this man, Archibald Gowanlock Huntsman, who was described by some as autocratic, tight-fisted, argumentative and stubborn and by others as a great teacher, humanitarian, tireless worker and brilliant innovator. He would transform the fledgling St. Andrews station into an internationally recognized marine science centre.  It is the story of a remarkable scientific journey.

When young Huntsman came here to the University of Toronto in 1901, it was not to study aquatic science but medicine.  Born into a struggling farm family near Tintern, Ontario, in 1983, he won a matriculation scholarship to the university.  One of his professors recalled:  Huntsman demonstrated a driving intellect that never stopped, a student who carefully followed every word of every lecture with total attention and afterwards relentlessly questioned every point he did not grasp and asked for clarification and proof of everything he did.

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A.G. just wanted to know why, why.  What are the facts?

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Huntsman was just the kind of student his science professors were trying to recruit as summer researchers at St. Andrews and to the board's two other biological stations: Georgian Bay, established in 1901; and the Pacific Biological Station, also opened in 1908 at Departure Bay near Nanaimo, British Columbia. In 1904 they succeeded when young Huntsman accepted an invitation to assist Dr. B.A. Benzley with his freshwater studies at Go Home Bay on Georgian Bay, Ontario, as a summer research assistant. Huntsman loved the experience and spent the next four summers working with Benzley collecting specimens and charting life histories of a number of fresh water species.

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With no courses available in fisheries or marine sciences, students like Huntsman had to learn on the job, developing the methods and the science as they went.

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When Huntsman returned to Toronto from his fourth summer at Georgian Bay, he met and fell in love with beautiful Florence Marie Sterling.  Impetuous as ever, Huntsman wanted to marry her immediately, but his precarious financial situation made that impossible. However, after graduating in medicine with first class honours the following spring, the university offered him a salaried job as assistant lecturer in biology, with the understanding he would continue to assist the zoology department's aquatic investigations during the summer vacations.

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I abandoned medicine and chose a lectureship in biology instead.  This permitted me to go on with fisheries research, and it also enabled me to marry Florence.

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The marriage in 1908 marked the beginning of a wonderful relationship that lasted all their lives.

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He always treated her with the utmost consideration in the most courtly manner.

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Within months of their wedding Huntsman was sent to the newly established Pacific Biological Station near Nanaimo, British Columbia, to make a general collection of marine animals for the University of Toronto.  He returned the next summer to continue the collection. But the following summer of 1910, he was sent to St. Andrews on the Atlantic coast to collect specimens there. It was here on the fishing docks and boat yards of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that he came into direct contact with commercial fishermen and their families.  He was disturbed by the plight and the uncertainty of their lives and was determined to devote himself to improving their lot by applying science to increase their catches and find better ways to market their fish.

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Huntsman had a very strong loyalty to fishermen, for two reasons I think.  One, he honestly was in support of them and wanted to improve conditions for them.  Second, he thought that they were good observers; that what they saw was often unbiased and very useful to science.

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The following summer of 1911 Huntsman left Florence and their new baby daughter in Toronto and returned once more to St. Andrews, where Dr. Prince had appointed him temporary curator. However, at the end of the season Dr. Prince and the board were so impressed with young Huntsman's energy and competence that they reappointed him curator for the following summer of 1912, and in 1915 they made the appointment permanent. This is because they saw Huntsman's greatest skill was not so much in hands-on science but as a science facilitator. In 1912 Huntsman took advantage of his new position as curator to familiarize himself with the kinds of research programs that had been undertaken at St. Andrews since its inception in 1908.

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I noted that the majority of investigations had been devoted to fundamental scientific work rather than research directed to development and improvement of the fisheries themselves and much of the work that had been done to enhance the fisheries, like hatchery programs.  And attempts at lobster and oyster culture had proven unsuccessful.

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Huntsman believed more might be achieved by going offshore to investigate the environmental conditions out there where the fish lived.

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His attitude was that the fish are a product of where they are.  Therefore, the environment is the important thing.

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In the fall of 1914, Dr. Prince and the Biological Board invited renowned Norwegian biologist and oceanographer Johan Hjort to make a working visit to Canada.  Dr. Hjort had written extensively on the importance of oceanic research and had personally led ground-breaking surveys in the eastern North Atlantic waters off Norway. On the basis of that visit, in 1915 he was invited to direct a thorough biological and oceanographic survey of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and beyond.

Hjort was the ideal man to lead this expedition to assess the numbers, the health and distribution of the commercial fish populations like herring.  They also meticulously documented the regime of ocean temperatures, salinities, currents and plankton contents. Hjort's was the first systematic survey of the physical oceanography of Atlantic Canada, and it marked the beginning of efforts, particularly at St. Andrews, to study how the changes in oceanographic conditions can affect fisheries.

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Working with Hjort taught Huntsman the value of more comprehensive studies in fisheries science.  This heavily influenced his already creative approach.

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I think Huntsman was made aware of the capacity to help fishermen by increasing the quality with which they handled their catch through his contact with the marvellous Norwegian scientist Johan Hjort.  Hjort was a man that Huntsman admired greatly for his scientific capacity.

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Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Great War interrupted the work with Hjort.  However, Huntsman and the others who worked with him were profoundly influenced by his ideas.

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Dr. Hjort had much to teach us.  He broadened our horizons to see the whole ocean as our laboratory.

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A year after the war, in 1919, Huntsman was officially appointed director at St. Andrews.  The post-war years saw more money for marine research from Ottawa.  This allowed an increase in the number of researchers and new facilities.  By now A.G. was paid as a fulltime employee of the board.  However, he continued to teach his graduate students at the University of Toronto without remuneration.  This was a satisfactory arrangement all round.

Huntsman not only directed research at St. Andrews, he also taught and encouraged students to work as summer volunteers at the board's growing number of biological stations. As a professor he loved to discuss and debate scientific ideas with his students rather than just to lecture them.

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Dr. Huntsman had a good reputation and it was well deserved.  He stimulated people to think.  He was deliberately provocative so that someone would ask him questions, which would then open the session for discussion, which is what he really loved.

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He liked to argue.  That was his favourite form of exchange of all.

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As director of St. Andrews and Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Toronto, Huntsman made a large number of important contacts with other universities and research facilities at home and abroad.  This led to international cooperation on research projects, especially with his friend, Harvard's Dr. Henry Bigalow, a renowned aquatic scientist. It was Huntsman and Bigalow who had founded the North American Council on Fisheries Investigations that was funding and implementing far reaching new oceanographic surveys off the Atlantic coasts of both countries, as well as Newfoundland.

Dr. Prince retired as Chairman of the Board in 1924 and now it increasingly fell to Huntsman to advise the board on what aquatic research should be implemented at the biological stations. Now in the mid-1920s Huntsman was at the height of his influence.  He not only continued to be the director of St. Andrews, but in 1924 he also took on the task of creating the Atlantic Experimental Station in Halifax, which he directed until 1928.  Here Huntsman initiated a number of science-based investigations to improve the handling of fish from the time they were caught and cleaned to their subsequent transportation to the markets.

Among the many innovations Huntsman devised at the Atlantic Experimental Station was the fast freezing of fish fillets.  He invented what he called jacketed cold storage.  Refrigeration pipes were kept from frosting up and becoming less efficient by being enclosed in a metal jacket that separated them from the contents of the freezer.  The result was a fast and economical method of freezing one-inch thick fillets within 15 minutes. Huntsman's production of ice fillets in 1929 gave Toronto its first taste of truly fresh fish.  The Biological Board could not keep up with the demand, selling tonnes of frozen fish that year.  However, when the board had to turn over the production of ice fillets to private enterprise, the government refused to allow the Biological Board to conduct quality inspections.

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The companies involved got sloppy so that after a time ice fillets lost their reputation as a fine product and demand faltered.

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It would be 25 years before they would be reintroduced. The 1920s were a golden time for Huntsman and his family.  Now Florence and their three daughters came to St. Andrews with him during the summers.  This prompted him to buy a car. So he took the train to Halifax, bought a vehicle and even though he had never driven a car in his life he learned to drive it by trial and error on the way back to St. Andrews. It was this kind of self‑confidence that allowed him to dominate the Biological Board which, at Huntsman's urging, now included representatives of the fishing industry.

At the annual meetings in Ottawa, Huntsman set the scientific agenda at St. Andrews for the coming year.  With increased budgets and a larger staff, St. Andrews was transformed from a summer-only station to a year-round operation in 1928. By now Huntsman had gained international attention for his work at St. Andrews and was invited to speak and to sit on numerous national boards and foreign fishery organizations.

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Advisory boards and boards of trustees of Woods Hole and British Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council here, the Royal Society of Canada, on and on and on.  His credits if you will in scientific societies were almost innumerable. In 1929 the expansion of research, staff and facilities at St. Andrews and other biological stations came to an abrupt halt at the onset of the Great Depression.  Salaries were cut by 10 per cent and the overall budget for the stations by 50 per cent.  But few of the employees grumbled because they were glad to still have a job. In spite of the severely curtailed budgets, Huntsman somehow kept research at his beloved station going for the next two years.  Then catastrophe.  In 1932 a fire destroyed the main laboratory building and in the process the library was gutted, destroying years of valuable data, records and research materials.

Huntsman knew the government and the board would not rebuild the station, not in these hard times, maybe never.  He couldn't let that happen.  So he assembled his staff and told them their salaries would be cut by a further 10 per cent.  All expenditures would be carefully monitored in an effort to save every penny possible for reconstruction. Then he hired local contractors on behalf of the board to begin the work.  But when the board was finally notified of the immediate reconstruction of the station without its authorization, it was appalled.  There was very little the board members could do.  Huntsman had signed legal agreements with the builders, and unless the board wanted to fight costly legal battles they would have to pay up. But it spelled the end of Huntsman as director at St. Andrews.

It fell to the new Chairman of the Board, Dr. A.T. Cameron, to remove Huntsman, an unpleasant task that might have unnerved a softer, kinder man.  But Cameron was neither.  He felt Huntsman should be cut down to size, but the board wouldn't hear of it.  They had far too much respect for Huntsman for that.  He was appointed editor of the board's publications and given a rather vague position of Consulting Director to the board.

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Removed from being director at St. Andrews, kicked upstairs, made Consulting Director to the board instead.  Consulting Director.  I knew perfectly well they had no intention whatsoever of consulting me again; no, not ever.

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Huntsman was further disappointed by Cameron and the board when they decided to discontinue financial support for university volunteers in the summers.

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How can they be so small minded.  Now students can no longer get first-hand research opportunities in the summer months as an essential part of their education.  It is so short-sighted.

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Apart from his editorial work, beginning in 1935 Huntsman directed much of the board's Atlantic salmon research.  His work on the effects of the environment on the movements and behaviour of Atlantic salmon, as well as his investigations on the effects of predation on juvenile salmon gained him international attention and acclaim.  But even here Huntsman created a furore by his stubborn refusal to accept the idea that salmon migrate to and from their home streams, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. But this oddity is a small blind spot in an otherwise successful scientific career.

His publication record of over 200 scientific reports and papers attests to his industry. In 1952 the Canadian scientific community showed their great esteem for Huntsman and his work by bestowing on him the Royal Society of Canada's prestigious Flavelle Medal. But his greatest legacy is a human one demonstrated in the life and work of many graduate students he taught and influenced as Professor of Marine Biology at Toronto, many of whom became internationally renowned aquatic scientists.

And his legacy lives on here at the St. Andrews Biological Station, now a highly respected aquatic scientific centre. It was Huntsman's stubborn perseverance that saved it from oblivion after the fire of 1932.  It is fitting that three years before his death in 1975 A.G. was asked to open this unique institution, the Huntsman Marine Laboratory, now the Huntsman Marine Science Centre, in St. Andrews, dedicated to continuing something dear to Huntsman: the opportunity for students and scientists to study the marine environment firsthand during the university summer break, as he had in his youth. The Centre was established through the leadership of a former Director of St. Andrews, Dr. J.M. Anderson, with the support of a consortium of eastern Canadian universities.

A.G. Huntsman's memory is also celebrated in an annual award presented here at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia.  The A.G. Huntsman Award for Excellence and Outstanding Contributions to the Marine Sciences is presented on a worldwide selection basis. The award was presented in 2001 to biological oceanographer Dr. David N. Karl of the University of Hawaii for his far-reaching studies of ocean ecosystems and global processes. But perhaps A.G.'s most enduring legacy is in the gratitude of the generations of fishermen who benefited from his early experimental work in Halifax, work that improved their lot by applying science to better market and process the fruit of their labours on the sea.

In 2000 Canada Post issued a stamp to commemorate this work.  The stamp is simply catalogued under the heading "Archibald Gowanlock Huntsman: A Fisherman's Friend", a tribute Huntsman would probably have appreciated above all others.