Sept/Oct 2016

Metallurgical trailblazer, first female University of Toronto professor Ursula Franklin dead at 94

By Sara King-Abadi

Ursula-Franklin
Franklin “went against the current in many ways,” her grandson Alejandro Mejia recalled, “and I think that was something that she enjoyed.” | Mark Neil Balson/ University of Toronto Engineering

Ursula Martius Franklin, the first female professor in the department of metallurgy and material sciences at the University of Toronto, died in Toronto on July 22 at the age of 94, surrounded by loved ones. Franklin pioneered the field of archaeometry and helped to better understand the metallurgical processes used by ancient civilizations.

A feminist, pacifist and professor emerita, Franklin was a woman of high moral standards who devoted her life to others. “She was very brave,” said Dr. Vanda Vitali, Franklin’s final PhD student and a colleague, mentee and friend. “She was courageous in every aspect of that word. She led by doing things. It was not words, it was actions.”

The only child of a Jewish art historian and German Lutheran ethnographer, Franklin was born on Sept. 16, 1921 in Munich, Germany. She began her undergraduate education in Berlin in 1940, but her studies were interrupted when she was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for 18 months. She was reunited with her parents, who were held in a separate camp, after the war, though her mother’s family perished.

It was during the turmoil of the Nazi era that Franklin chose to pursue science after witnessing a cathode ray tube interact with a magnet. “I suddenly had this feeling of great joy that even they, those people in government who were after us, couldn’t make an electron beam bend in any other direction,” Franklin said in an interview for the book Women of Impact.

After the war she enrolled in the Technical University of Berlin, where she obtained a doctorate in experimental physics in 1948, then received the Lady Davis Fellowship, which brought her to the University of Toronto in 1949 to do post-doctoral research.

Franklin played an instrumental role in developing the field of archaeometry, a practice that uses modern methods to examine archaeological artifacts in order to better understand prehistoric technologies, material synthesis and conservation. And in the 1960s her research on strontium-90, a radioactive isotope, in Canadian children’s teeth helped put an end to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.

Franklin paved the way for future generations of women scientists and became the first female professor at the University of Toronto in 1984. Mentoring became a duty to Franklin, who wanted to “change the world of engineers so that women, while being practicing engineers, can also safely and cheerfully be themselves.”

“Her being such a big part of my life but relatively late in her career, I got her reflections of her career rather than being a witness to the milestones themselves,” said her grandson, Alejandro Mejia, a material sciences professional. “I think, most of all, the takeaway that I got was that she had a hard time…She went against the current in many ways and I think that was something that she enjoyed.”

Franklin was awarded the United Nations Association’s Pearson Peace Medal in 2002 in part for her work at the Ursula Franklin Academy, an inner city Toronto high school. In addition to over 40 honourary doctorates, Franklin became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1982 and was named a CIM Distinguished Lecturer that same year.

“She had that gift of being able to see that whole picture and a phenomenal way of making you think twice,” said Professor Doug Perovic, a former student and colleague of Franklin’s. “She really opened our eyes.”


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