What remains: Buried secrets on the University of Manitoba campus

A simple stone cairn in front of one of the University of Manitoba's grand buildings, passed daily by thousands of students, contains a little-known secret.

'It definitely paints a more vivid picture of what happens on this campus'

A man with a mustache, wearing a suit and tie, looks to the left of the camera in an old black-and-white head-and-shoulders photo portrait.
Arthur Henry (A.H.) Reginald Buller, here as he looked around the time he came to Winnipeg in fall 1904, brought a lot of prestige to the University of Manitoba. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

A simple stone cairn in front of one of the University of Manitoba's grand buildings, passed daily by thousands of students, contains a little-known secret.

Inside the base of the Tyndall stone monument are the remains of Prof. Arthur Henry Reginald Buller, known as one of the university's original six professors and for whom the Buller Biological Laboratories building is named.

That makes the cairn more of a tombstone.

"I think it would change the way people interact with that section of the campus [if they knew], for sure.… It's a very odd thing to kind of think about," said Jaron Rykiss, president of the University of Manitoba Students' Union.

"I personally wasn't aware of it … to be honest with you."

Six men in dark suits stand and sit around a small wooden table in a black-and-white formal photo.
The University of Manitoba's original six professors pose for a portrait. Seated, left to right, are Matthew Parker (chemistry), Arthur Henry Reginald Buller (botany and geology), Frank Allen (physics) and Robert Rutherford Cochrane (mathematics). Standing is Gordon Bell (bacteriology), left, and Swale Vincent (physiology and zoology), right. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

That's likely the case for most of the 30,000 students at the U of M's Fort Garry campus in south Winnipeg, said Heather Bidzinski, head of archives and special collections at the university.

"The monument that the cremains are interred in is fairly nondescript. I would be very surprised if people understood that they were actually passing by Buller himself," she said.

Three imposing buildings are centred in a black and white cityscape, including a large building with a central tower and front columns in the rear, a many-windowed three- or four-story building behind a park and near a monument in the centre ground and a large auditorium-style building in the left foreground.
The U of M Broadway campus can be seen at centre-right in this photo, in what is now Memorial Park. Winnipeg’s Civic Auditorium, now the Archives of Manitoba building, is at the left. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

Born in England in 1874, Buller was a lecturer at the University of Birmingham when he was lured in 1904 to Winnipeg, a small Prairie city on the cusp of a population boom. The city grew from 42,500 people in 1901 to 136,000 in 1911.

It was a time of evolution for the U of M as well. Established in 1877 as the first institution of higher education in Western Canada, it initially primarily served as a degree-granting body for its three founding theological colleges: St. Boniface College, St. John's College and Manitoba College.

The provincial government changed the University Act in 1901 so the U of M could do its own teaching in a brand new three-storey brick structure on Broadway, a site that today is Memorial Park, across from the legislative building.

In an old black-and-white photo, dozens of people, mostly younger men in suits, sit at four long black tables with books and microscopes in front of them. Three men stand behind them, along a wall that holds chalkboards, windows and doors.
Students sit in a botany laboratory at the University of Manitoba. Buller stands at the back of the class, far right. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

At the start, instructors were still members of the clergy, connected to the founding colleges.

The hiring in 1904 of Buller and five others — Frank Allen, Gordon Bell, Robert Rutherford Cochrane, Matthew Archibald Parker and Swale Vincent — established the faculty of science and marked the first generation of "professional professors," Bidzinski said.

Known as the original six, they were the first instructors whose sole job was to research and teach, she said.

"When Buller [and the others were] originally hired there was really no leadership. There wasn't a president of the university. It was still fairly new," Bidzinski said.

The U of M hired its first president, James MacLean, in 1913, and he and Buller forged a strong friendship.

A botanist who specialized in mycology, the study of fungus, Buller was given a lot of leash for study and brought of prestige to the school through new discoveries and appointments, including as president of the Royal Society of Canada.

He also was one of the founders, in 1925, of the federally run Dominion Rust Research Laboratory, located in the Agriculture Canada building on the U of M campus, for scientists working to combat crop diseases. It was created in response to the problem of stem rust fungus plaguing Prairie wheat crops.

Old cars line a road in front of an imposing four-storey structure with two entrances.
The Buller Biological Laboratories, then known as the Science Building, seen in the late 1930s or early 1940s. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

In a 2004 article for the Manitoba Historical Society, Buller was described as the most distinguished scientist among the original six and perhaps the most esteemed in the university's history.

In the 1930s, the university moved to its present site and a grand Gothic-style building, later renamed the Buller Building, was built for the sciences.

Buller's relationship with the U of M, however, ended on a negative note a short time later.

A balding man with a white mustache, wearing a suit, stands with his hands gripping the sides of a table, looking down at a large oval object on the table.
Buller contemplates a puffball mushroom in a photo from the later years of his career. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

A financial scandal hit the university just after the move, and a royal commission led to the replacement of the president, chancellor and board of governors.

Buller's relationship with the new president wasn't great and he gave up teaching in 1936 but continued to use his old Broadway campus office for research projects. In 1942, though, he was told to make way for new instructors.

"Buller felt really neglected and was quite upset after contributing his life work to the university and really helping to build the foundation," Bidzinksi said.

He hauled his materials — research materials, an extensive library, hand-coloured illustrations, glass slides — to an old laboratory and piled them up, where they sat for years.

A man in a suit puts his finger at the edge of a rectangular opening in a wall below a portrait of a balding, grey-haired man in a suit.
William F. Hanna, who was the head of the botany and plant pathology division at the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory, points to the wall cavity where Buller's cremains were installed in the Buller Memorial Library at the now-demolished Agriculture Canada building. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

Buller's health deteriorated and in 1944, he was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour. He died July 3 of that year at age 69.

Bidzinski said apparently on his deathbed, Buller told colleagues he did not want the university to keep his materials, so the items were given to the Dominion Rust lab (later renamed the Cereal Research Centre).

The Buller Memorial Library was established in the Cereal Research Centre, where his remains were set into a hollow compartment in a wall, below his portrait.

Buller had no family and "his colleagues felt that his proper resting place was with his treasured library," Bidzinski said.

A stone cairn sits on plywood and skids on a brick sidewalk next to a garden area with a base for the cairn set into the ground. There's a golden-coloured square at the centre of the base.
A Tyndall stone cairn awaits placement on top of Buller's remains, stored in a copper urn and set in the base in front of the Buller Biological Laboratories building. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

The research centre was shut down by the federal government in 2014, but the U of M had started acquiring the Buller collection about a decade before that — despite his deathbed wish, which was not in his will.

So Buller's materials, and remains, went back to the university. 

Recognizing the shelves in the U of M archives probably weren't the best place for the remains, a decision was made to set Buller's copper urn to rest in front of the building bearing his name.

"It's an interesting piece of history. I mean, obviously when you have a university that's been around as long as we have, there are bound to be some quirks like that," Rykiss said.

"But it definitely paints a more vivid picture of what happens on this campus."

Not the only ones

If Buller's remains being buried on campus isn't odd enough, how about the fact they aren't the only ones?

"The man who proposed the Avenue of Elms, to honour the soldiers killed in the First World War … is buried underneath the first elm opposite the Administration Building," said Shelley Sweeney, former head of archives and special collections at the U of M.

In 1922, the main road into the Fort Garry campus was dedicated as a living memorial to members of the U of M community who never returned from the First World War. The Avenue of Elms runs from the admin building to Pembina Highway along Chancellor Matheson Drive.

A plaque at the base of that first tree is inscribed in memoriam to Wilfrid John Rae (1899-1979), "whose cremated remains are buried under the elm tree he planted in 1923."

A long paved road with trees planted in a row on either side stretches toward a columned building in the background.
The University of Manitoba's Avenue of Elms is seen in this undated photo, with the Administration Building in the background. (Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough)


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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