URSULA FRANKLIN: 1921 – 2016

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By Stephanne Taylor, Physics & Astronomy Editor

Ursula Franklin held many titles, including physicist, activist, trailblazer, pacifist, feminist, Fellow of the Royal Society, member of the Order of Ontario, and Companion of the Order of Canada. Her cross-disciplinary work spans decades and departments, and she carved a path for both herself and other women through the overwhelmingly male world of engineering from the 1950s to the 1970s. Her social activism provided a principled foundation for her scientific work, and she was conscious of the social impact of her research.  Dr. Doug Perovic, first her student and later a colleague, recalls that even in her classes, she “always put the details in a bigger context.” She was profoundly aware of the impact her research had beyond her lab, both on society and the environment.

Dr. Franklin was raised in Berlin by a Jewish mother and Protestant father. At the outbreak of WWII, her parents were unable to get her out of Germany, so she remained at Berlin University  until the Nazis expelled her. She survived a forced labour camp, while her parents survived a concentration camp. Miraculously, they were all reunited in Berlin after the war, and she returned to her studies.

Her greatest contribution to science is her ground-breaking work in the field of archeometry, which is the analysis of archeological artifacts using modern materials science.

After finishing her PhD in experimental physics, Franklin emigrated to Canada to flee a still highly militarized society, and started her Canadian academic career as a postdoc at the University of Toronto. She soon moved to the Ontario Research Foundation, where she spent 15 years and conducted what is possibly her single piece of research with the farthest-reaching impact. By this time it was the late 1950s; the atomic race was underway and atmospheric weapons tests were common. Dr. Franklin, by now a Quaker and an avowed pacifist, was investigating whether radioactive isotopes produced by atmospheric weapons tests were being absorbed by humans in detectable quantities. She tested children’s baby teeth (including her own children’s!), and found they were absorbing large amounts of strontium-90, which significantly increases the risk of bone and blood cancers. Her findings indicated that radioactive fallout did not remain in the upper atmosphere and posed a widespread public health threat, and were critical evidence that led directly to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  Atomic detonations in the atmosphere, on land, or in space were outlawed, and the treaty has been signed by 135 nations.

Her greatest contribution to science is her ground-breaking work in the field of archeometry, which is the analysis of archeological artifacts using modern materials science. She was one of the very first to study ancient ceramics and metals using these methods, and her hundreds of research papers laid the foundation for the field.

Her scientific work was suffused with her social activism, and Dr. Perovic recalls that she worked tirelessly to find ways to make more environmentally responsible materials. Long before recycling bins were ubiquitous in households and workplaces, Dr. Franklin was looking for ways to return to the earth the resources we had extracted. As a member of the Science Council of Canada, she chaired the committee that produced the report entitled “Canada as a Conserver Society,” which laid out a blueprint for how Canada could become a more sustainable society.

When she re-joined the University of Toronto in 1967, she was the first female professor of materials science and engineering, and the second female engineering professor. At this time, her department faculty meetings were held in Hart House, which did not allow women inside, and Dr. Franklin had to get special dispensation just to attend. Hart House finally opened its doors to women in 1972.

She used her trailblazer status to advocate for women’s equality, and even in the 1960s and 70s she was an ardent advocate for women’s equality in academia.

Dr. Franklin was frequently “the first female X” or the only woman in the room, notably becoming the first woman to hold the title of University Professor at the University of Toronto. Dr. Perovic recalls that just having a woman at the front of an engineering classroom was remarkable, particularly as more women started to enroll in undergraduate engineering classes. She used her trailblazer status to advocate for women’s equality, and even in the 1960s and 70s she was an ardent advocate for women’s equality in academia. In 2001, she filed a class-action lawsuit with other pioneering female professors against the University of Toronto, arguing that they were systematically paid less than their male counterparts while the university benefited from their work and profile. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2002, with the university admitting that women had been systematically discriminated against and compensating 60 retired female professors.

Outside of scientific circles, Dr. Franklin is perhaps best known for her incisive analysis of the role of technology in society, and how technology shapes and is shaped by conscious decisions we make about how to structure our society. In her 1989 Massey Lectures titled “The Real World of Technology,” she takes a broad view of technology, and splits it into holistic and prescriptive technologies. Holistic technologies require a person to understand the entire process of making an object from start to finish, and this puts creative power in their hands. Prescriptive technologies, by contrast, split the process of making an object into discrete steps, each of which is prescribed such that it fits into a chain of tasks. Each task can be given to a separate individual, which makes prescriptive technologies efficient and allows for mass production, but it removes power from the workers and places it in the hands of those assigning the tasks.

Her pioneering science, unwavering commitment to social justice and peace, and the students she taught and mentored are a huge legacy.

Listening to Dr. Franklin’s lectures 27 years later, it is evident how relevant her ideas about the power of information and the influence of technology on society remain in the digital age. The context of a lecture on technology and society in 1989 is profoundly different from today’s: after decades of the constant  threat of nuclear war, the Iron Curtain was starting to crumble, the Berlin Wall fell, and a student revolution in Tiananmen Square was squashed. In 1989, technology still conjured up images of nuclear arms and military power but it was also the year that the a proposal for the World Wide Web was written.  Computers were becoming widespread, and the seeds of the digital age were sprouting. Listening to Dr. Franklin talk about the dangers of surveillance through smart cards and digital technology or of the compartmentalization of communication, it is easy to imagine these same lectures being written in 2016.

In one lecture, she described her fear that as the Cold War draws to a close, the military would need to identify a new unbeatable foe to maintain its perceived place, and might turn inward to find it. After a decade of seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, often justified with manufactured evidence, and the arsenal of military weapons that many police forces now brandish, this reads as sadly prophetic.

It is  ironic that one of the most high-profile public lecture series in Canada was given by an outspoken feminist and pacifist engineer a month before the École Polytechnique massacre, when fourteen female engineering students and staff were murdered by a man decrying feminism.  Dr. Franklin spoke about the massacre frequently, including at a memorial service in January 1990 and at the five year anniversary.

Much of Dr. Franklin’s prolific body of work has been archived, though it has not yet been digitized. Her pioneering science, unwavering commitment to social justice and peace, and the students she taught and mentored are a huge legacy. She is a tremendous role model for both women and men, demonstrating that academics can look up from the narrow focus required in the day-to-day work of science and take a broad view of society as well. “She always asked “what consequences will this have?”, Dr. Perovic says. “Her view of things was so wide and encompassing.” Her holistic approach to science and society remains unusual and important, and her death is a great loss to Canadian science.

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