Ursula Franklin, the legendary physicist and pacifist, died in Toronto on July 22nd, 2016
Photo Credit: U of T

Ursula Franklin dead at 94

Ursula Franklin, the German-Canadian scientist, pioneer in academia, feminist and social activist, died on Friday at the age of 94

Franklin came to Canada in 1949 after receiving the Lady Davis Fellowship. She arrived at the University of Toronto as a post-doctoral fellow, and later recalled how the wives of faculty members were wonderfully supportive, helping her get settled and to improve her English.

Her mother, an art historian and a Jew, and her father an ethnographer, and German Lutheran, had both encouraged Ursula’s interests and a university education was a foregone conclusion. Franklin credits her parents for her extraordinary life.

She and her parents were imprisoned in Germany during the Second World War, but did survive. Ursula Franklin said she decided to pursue science because it “seemed to be the field where I could escape politics.”

“While other children had the tooth fairy, mine were being tested for strontium-90”

Franklin was the first woman named University Professor at U of T, a special designation granted to a select few in the faculty, in 1984.

She was delighted with the honour. “The one great joy I felt in my academic life, seeing the promotion of young women, is that they got younger and younger.” She said in an interview at U of T. “To see young women who have a life ahead of them be in a position that they deserve, that they have the scope and the recognition and the responsibility that they could carry, that, is a real achievement.”

In an interview with CBC, Franklin’s daughter Monica said, “All her career, she was always the first and the pioneer and the woman,” 

Franklin was honoured with a long list of awards and accomplishments; appointed to the Order of Ontario in 1990 and then named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1992, the country’s highest honour. to name a few.

“Peace is not the absence of war—peace is the absence of fear”

Along with creating the field of archaeometry, the application of modern materials science to the dating of archaeological artefacts, one of Franklin’s biggest contributions to science was the discovery of radioactive substances in the baby teeth of Canadian children.

“It was a little disconcerting because it was my teeth,” her son, Martin Franklin, recounted to a CBC reporter. “I was seven or so at the time and while other children had the tooth fairy, mine were being tested for strontium-90.” The discovery led her to convince Cold War governments to halt atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the early 1960’s. It was in keeping with her conviction that “the personal is political.”

“I do not think that any single thing that I did was unique, but the trajectory of a consistent professional life gave a sense of reality and possibility to others.” she said.

In 1989 Ursula Franklin delivered the CBC’s Massey Lectures. The series was published as “The Real World of Technology”. In 2014 she published two collections of her writings and talks. “The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map” (2006) and “Ursula Franklin Speaks: Thoughts and Afterthoughts” (2014).

Ursula Franklin’s pacifism came from her upbringing witnessing what happened in Germany leading to the Second World War. In an interview with the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers, following the publication of one of her books she described peace and public health as “the presence of justice and the absence of fear”.

During the interview she counsels people to “Slow down and think”, and reminds us that “nuclear weapons affect everyone” and there are no “bystanders” anymore.

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