Ursula Franklin was a metallurgist (def: one who studies the chemical and physical behaviour of metallic elements), research physicist, and educator who spent over 40 years teaching at the University of Toronto. She was born in Munich, Germany in 1920; the child of two academics. Her mother was an art historian and her father an ethnographer: a researcher in the study of people and their cultures with an interest in Africa.

She was studying physics and chemistry at Berlin University until she was expelled by the Nazis because of her mother’s Jewish heritage. Her parents had tried to send her to Great Britain but were unsuccessful because the British refused to issue any student visas to anyone under the age of 18. Consequently, her family spent 18 months in a concentration camp while she was sent to a forced labour camp where she repaired bombed buildings. Luckily, her family survived the Holocaust and was reunited in Berlin after the end of the war.

Franklin had decided to study science because this was a time when history was censored and changed to suit the powers that be and she found some comfort in the constancy of science and mathematics. She received her Ph.D. from the Technical University of Berlin in 1948 and moved to Toronto shortly after when she was offered the Lady Davis postdoctoral fellowship from the University of Toronto. She was a practicing Quaker with very strong ideas about war and militarism so thought there was little left for her in Germany. She worked as a research fellow and then a senior research scientist at the Ontario Research Foundation from 1952 to 1967. In 1967, she joined the faculty at the University of Toronto as a researcher and associate professor at the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Sciences within the Faculty of Engineering. She became a full professor in 1973 and then received the highest honour of the designation of University Professor in 1984, making her the first female to receive such a position at U of T.  This was followed by her appointment in 1987 to professor emerita, the title given to a tenured professor who retires in good standing and still retains privileges at the university after said retirement.

Franklin was a trailblazer in the field of archeaometry, the use of modern materials analysis to assist in the dating of artifacts and objects. She worked in the dating of prehistoric ceramics, bronze, and copper artifact as well as developing a system for dating glass using microscopic, etching, electron microprobe and x-ray analyses.

Franklin is remembered for her activism almost as much as her science. As a member of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) she supported many pacifist and feminist causes. She wrote and spoke extensively about the futility of war and the connection between peace and social justice. She was one of the scientists who participated in the Baby Tooth Survey in the 1960s. This was an investigation of baby teeth (surprisingly) for the presence of strontium-90, a radioactive isotope in the fallout from nuclear testing. This testing illustrated the need for the cessation of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. She also chaired an influential study on nature and the need for conservation at a time when others were not giving it much credence.

Franklin wrote extensively on a wide range of topics including politics, human rights, conservation, and the social effects of technology. She was honoured with the award of merit from the city of Toronto, the Order of Ontario, named an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Companion to the Order of Canada. In 2001, she received the Pearson Medal of Peace for her works in human rights and given the Governor’s General Award in commemoration of the Person’s Case for advancing the equality of girls and women in Canada. These are only a small fraction of the numerous honours and awards that she received. She died in 2016 at the age of 94 after a full life of science and public service.

–Janice Willson

If you are interested in reading some of Franklin’s books, you can find them here:


Photo Source: Martin Franklin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ursula_Franklin_at_book_launch.jpg

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