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Holocaust survivor Ursula Franklin was a science trailblazer


Holocaust survivor Ursula Franklin was a science trailblazer

For over a century, in countries around the world, people have gathered at rallies, marches, and celebrations every March to mark International Women’s Day. This year, the pandemic has stopped them from meeting in person, but we continue it is possible to share stories of challenges and success in the struggle for women’s empowerment.

                 March is also women’s history month, when we pause and look to draw inspiration from the trailblazers who have come before us. Among them is Ursula Franklin, whose life was by any measure extraordinary. As an undergraduate science student in Germany during the Second World War, she was sent to a forced labour camp. She survived the Holocaust and obtained a PhD in experimental physics in Berlin; in 1949, she came to Canada to take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto. Here in Ontario, she became a pioneering scientist in the field of archaeometry, using cutting-edge science to date and analyze ancient materials.

                As a leading contributor to her field, she paved the way time and again for the next generation of female scientists—at the Ontario Research Foundation in the 1950s and ‘60s, where she headed the non-destructive testing and x-ray department, and in the University of Toronto’s department of Materials Science and Engineering, where she taught from 1967 until retiring in 1987. In 1984, she became the first woman to receive the University of Toronto’s highest academic title. She would later tell interviewers Anne Millar and Mary Wells, “There is such a profound difference in being the first and being the only. … [B]eing the first woman University Professor, I was really happy because it meant there would be others.”

Franklin in her U of T lab. U of T photo

                Attaining these positions didn’t mean she was treated fairly. In 2002, she and other retired women professors received a settlement from the University of Toronto, which acknowledged the gender-based barriers they had faced and compensated them for unequal salaries and pensions.

                Franklin’s activism reached beyond the halls of academia: in the early 1960s, as a member of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW), she was instrumental in the effort to achieve a widespread ban on atmospheric nuclear arms testing—having found radioactive Strontium-90 in babies’ teeth. For this and many other achievements, she received the Order of Ontario in 1990.

Lieutenant Governor Dowdeswell comments

           Commented The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. “I had the privilege to meet Dr. Franklin before I moved to Kenya to be the first woman executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. In the following years, and throughout my appointment as Lieutenant Governor, I have often thought back to her wise words. She was committed to building a new social order in which, as she once told a Toronto audience, “women, who for so long have been assigned social roles and political places, are free to choose their own paths.”[1]

                Determination and discovery are at the heart of Franklin’s story. Her fight for a more inclusive field of scientific inquiry continues as we campaign, not just in March but every day of the year, for equity and equality for women in Ontario and beyond.


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