When the results of the Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada's qualifying exams were released early this summer, a University of Alberta graduate — Veronica Szekely, '01 BSc (Pharm) — had the highest overall grade. That achievement earned her the George A. Burbidge Award — the tenth time in the last 13 years that the Burbidge Award has gone to a student graduating from the U of A pharmacy school. And once again this year, for the 11th time in the past 12 years, the U of A pharmacy graduating class was tops in the country with the highest combined average on the exams.
Two months before the pharmacy class of 2001 wrote their May qualifying exams, the man who deserves much of the credit for creating the foundation that made possible this remarkable record of achievement passed away. Merv Huston, '37 BSc(Pharm), '41 MSc, '88 DSc (Honorary), who brought the U of A pharmacy school into the modern era and built it to national prominence, died in Edmonton on 7 March 2001 following a lengthy illness.
Huston, who was born in 1912 and got his start in pharmacy as an apprentice in his father's pharmacy in Ashcroft, B.C., began lecturing in the U of A's School of Pharmacy while completing his master's degree. In 1946, having earned a PhD in pharmacology at the University of Washington, he was made acting director of the school. Two years later, he was confirmed as the school's director, a position he held until 1955 when the school became the U of A's Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and he became its dean, an appointment he held until 1978.
The erstwhile pharmacy dean is fondly remembered by those who knew him as a "character" — an old-fashioned term for a person whose approach to life sets them apart: a personality of bold colours instead of the usual pastels shading to grey. A gifted raconteur, Huston was one of Canada's best-known and beloved humorists. Many Canadians remember him not as the architect of the University's present-day Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences but as the creator of the fictional town of Blossom, Alberta, which he brought to life in Gophers Don't Pay Taxes, the episodic novel which earned him the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1982.
His other books of humour include Canada Eh to Zed, Great Golf Humour, Toast to the Bride, Prescription for Humour, and Golf and Murphy's Law. One of his earliest books — one that remained a favourite of many of his friends — was The Great Canadian Lover. When speaking about the book, Huston would assure his audience that the book wasn't autobiographical. Then, with impeccable timing, he would add, "However, now that you have met me, you will see that it is a natural mistake, and I don't fight it."
Huston's wit and self-deprecating humour (he liked to say that, around the University, deans were about as popular as "hemorrhoids at a bicycle race") made him a popular speaker at dinners and conferences. By the time he quit taking speaking engagements, he had delivered well over 500 addresses to professional associations, conventions, service clubs, and other diverse organizations across North America.
Apart from his professional intersts Huston had three passions in life. The first was his family, which included his wife Helen, who predeceased him, and two children, Brian Huston, '71 MLS, and Doran Young (Huston), '68 BA. His zest for life also extended to sports, his favourites being boxing, badminton, golf, and curling. Huston's other great passion was music. Bob Edgar, '55 BSc(Pharm), who first encountered Huston as a student and later got to know him much better when both were involved in professional associations, recalls that "music was very much a part of Merv's life." Edgar says that whenever the band would take a break during a dinner-and-dance event, Huston would take over the piano, and soon a group would be gathered around singing to his spirited playing of old favourites. More than just a talented amateur, Huston played the bassoon with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the local opera company for many years. Before that, he financed much of his education by playing the saxophone in off-campus bands.
In 1935 Huston and his friend and roommate Denny Baron got together with the late Chet Lambertson '36 BA, '41 MA and played a number of gigs on campus as "The Three Hearsemen." Lambertson was the composer of the U of A Cheer Song; when the Varsity Orchestra recorded it in 1935, Huston contributed to the arrangement and got his name on the record. Later Huston formed his own dance band, which he called "Happy Huston and his Merry Men." During the two-year hiatus between the completion of his pharmacy degree, Huston was a full-time musician, mostly playing with Chet Lambertson's orchestra.
Although "Happy Huston" was an apt name for the fun-loving Huston, he was nothing but serious about ensuring that pharmacy students at the U of A received a rigorous education. And his faculty members knew that he would stand for no slackness. "He ran a pretty tight ship," recalls Dick Moskalyk, '65 PhD, who became a U of A faculty member in 1963 and served as dean of the pharmacy faculty from 1990 to 1999. "Some of our faculty members who didn't know him well were scared stiff of him. He had a way of looking at you˜."
Looking back to his student days, Edgar also recalls Huston's intimidating presence. At least once during each dispensing lab, he says, Huston would come through and walk slowly up and down the rows of dispensing units. Holding the lapels of his spotless lab coat, he would "make a few comments when required" and then return to his office. "Needless to say, at that point the students would breathe a little easier," says Edgar.
Huston always emphasized professionalism: he was preparing students for a profession and he saw no reason why they shouldn't see themselves as professionals from their first day of classes. In Edgar's student years, male pharmacy students were required to wear dress shirts and ties to pharmacy classes and labs ("thank goodness for those clip-on bow ties," says Edgar). In dispensing labs, white lab coats were the order of the day. "Clean white lab coats," adds Edgar. "And they had better be clean."
There were, however, glimpses of the human behind the dean's forbidding facade, recalls Edgar. For many years the Pharmacy Club hosted an annual party in the river valley below the University. "The Outdoor Cabin would be the venue and these functions would be great fun," says Edgar. Huston, accompanied by one or two of his professors, would join the party early in the evening and take part briefly. "They would share stories and good humour," recalls Edgar, "perhaps have a hot dog or two, and then after half an hour or so would go back up the river bank to Saskatchewan Drive and home."
Once a year, the students of Edgar's era would see yet another side to Huston: the entertaining speaker known to so many Canadians. The occasion was the annual pharmacy formal, which was usually held at the Hotel Macdonald. "It was there that we found out about Merv's tremendous speaking ability," recalls Edgar, who shares the sentiment he attributes to one of his classmates: "It was worth the price of admission just to hear Merv's address."
While Huston cultivated a rigid formality within the pharmacy school, there were times when his humanity was very evident. In the eulogy that Edgar delivered at Huston's funeral, he shared one such instance:
Merv was a very human being. As we got to know him in later years, we found out that he did many unexpected things. In talking with another classmate two nights ago, I learned something I hadn't been aware of before. Evidently during our second year at university , Don came down with pneumonia and was promptly placed in the University's infirmary, which was in one of the rather "infirm" H-huts left over from the days of the Army on campus during the War. On each of the nine or 10 days Don was there, Merv Huston appeared at the door of his hospital room and would spend a short while chatting and cheering our classmate. Don said he will never forget that, and when he hears the name Merv Huston, he always thinks of those visits by Merv and the brightness he brought to an otherwise drab surrounding.
Moskalyk, who did his undergraduate work in pharmacy at the University of Saskatchewan, first met Huston at a pharmacy conference in Chicago. Moskalyk was there to meet the University of Chicago professor with whom he intended to do his graduate studies. But things changed when he met Huston. "Merv talked me into coming to Alberta instead," says Moskalyk. "He said he would give me a better deal."
A strong graduate program was important to Huston. "He was intent on establishing us as a research-based faculty," recalls Moskalyk. He was committed to that aspect from the very beginning. He was always of the opinion that people could learn much of the practical aspect of pharmacy out in the profession. He was there to teach them the science."
Huston's own interest in science dated back to his school days in B.C., first in Ashcroft and then in Kamloops where he completed high school. His aptitude for science served him in good stead during his BSc pharmacy studies at the U of A and he returned to the University to do a master's degree in biochemistry. In 1940, before that degree was completed, he received an appointment as a lecturer in the pharmacy school, the beginning of an active involvement that continued even after his retirement as dean 38 years later. At the time that Huston did his PhD degree through the University of Washington, no Canadian pharmacy school offered a doctoral program. Under Huston's leadership the U of A was the first to do so.
Among Huston's contributions to academic publishing were three texts and numerous scientific papers. In addition, he was the founding editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and contributed to other pharmaceutical publications. (Sometimes the division between Huston's serious writing and his humour was not entirely distinct. For many years he wrote a column for the Canadian Pharmacy Journal entitled "Test and Improve Your Scientific Word Power." The column consisted of a listing of 20 scientific terms, each followed by four possible definitions from which the reader was to choose the correct one. At least once each issue a tongue-in-cheek alternative would creep in — as in "tube from Paddington to Charing Cross" as a possible definition for "Fallopian Tube," or "lingerie" as an alternative under "Tunica Intima," which is the Latin phrase identifying the inner coat of an artery.)
Huston was always on the lookout for opportunities for his school, and it was under his leadership that the University acquired its Slowpoke nuclear reactor, which went into operation in 1978, the year he retired as dean. The reactor, the first nuclear reactor to be operated in Western Canada, helped the University of Alberta to become the first institution in North America to initiate a graduate program in radiopharmacy at the PhD level. Huston also showed strong leadership at the national level. He was a founder of what today is known as Association of Faculties of Pharmacy of Canada and was its chair in 1948-49. He also served as president of the Canadian Foundation for the Advancement of Pharmacy and of the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association. In 1969 he was the Canadian delegate at the inaugural meeting of the Commonwealth Pharmaceutical Conference in London and was elected to that body's council as the representative for the Commonwealth countries of North and South America. In recognition of his expertise and his long-held interest in research, in 1979 the Government of Alberta named Huston as a member of the original ad hoc advisory committee set up to shape the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, which came into being the following year. Numerous other honours came his way: honorary degrees from the U of A and Dalhousie, honorary life memberships in the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association and in the pharmaceutical associations of all the western provinces, the E.R. Squibb Award in Biochemistry and Public Health, a Centennial Medal in 1968, an Alberta Achievement Award, and other awards large and small.
While his many honours testify to the esteem in which Huston was held by his colleagues, Moskalyk says the most lasting testimonial to his friend and mentor's accomplishments can be found elsewhere. "From the very beginning Alberta had a reputation as a leader in pharmaceutical research, with a strong graduate program and a strong science base to its undergraduate program. That's probably Merv's biggest legacy. Subsequent deans have picked up on that strength and built from it, but Merv was the one that got it started."
Published Autumn 2001.