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In memoriam: Ursula Franklin

First female to receive University Professor distinction at U of T remembered as a mentor, and advocate for justice
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Ursula Franklin

In her 2014 novel Ursula Franklin Speaks: Thoughts and Afterthoughts, Franklin boldly states, “When one has any spare energy, or any spare talent, or any spare money, it is an obligation, it is the essence of citizenship, to use it for the common good.”

Scientist, educator, feminist, and pacifist — these were just a few of the roles Franklin adopted during her long and distinguished career.

Franklin was born in Munich on September 16, 1921. Due to the Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side, she was forced to intern in a Nazi labour camp during World War II.

Following the war, she completed her PhD in experimental Physics at the Technical University of Berlin. In 1948, she was awarded a post-doctoral scholarship to study at the University of Toronto.

Franklin went on to become a pioneer in the field of archaeometry, applying her understanding of metallurgy and crystallography to analyze and date archaeological artefacts. She was particularly interested in how technology shaped social organization, differentiating between holistic and prescriptive technologies.

As a senior scientist with the Ontario Research Foundation (ORF), she showed that the radioactive isotope strontium-90 was present in baby teeth. Her work resulted in a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. In 1967, she joined the University of Toronto as a professor of what is now the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. In the 1970s, she led a ground-breaking study on resource conservation while serving on the Science Council of Canada (SCC).

Throughout her career, Franklin championed the peaceful use of science and technology. “Peace,” she said, “is not the absence of war but the absence of fear, which is the presence of justice.”

Franklin often described her perspective on activism using the ‘earthworm theory of civic engagement.’ In her book she explained, “From earthworms we learn that before anything grows there has to be prepared soil. [Throughout] that endless process of bringing briefs and information to governments… the only thing that can keep us going is the notion that it prepares the soil. It may not change minds, but it will provide the arguments for a time when minds are changed. I think until and unless there is that prepared soil, no new thoughts and no new ways of dealing with problems will ever arise.”

In 1984, she was appointed the first female to receive University Professor status at U of T — the institution’s highest designation. It was important to her that she would not be the only female to achieve this; being the first meant there would be others.

Franklin tirelessly prepared the soil for the younger women around her, seeing to it that they weren’t hurt or bruised. The best way to nurture women in science and engineering, she believed, was to create a civilized environment for all — a work environment that is free of fear and embarrassment to promote female leaders.

Franklin spent much of the last 25 years of her life as a Senior Fellow at the University’s Massey College; she was an influential leader and friend. She will be remembered, above all, as a mentor with an enormous heart.