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Themes - Science

Ursula Franklin

Photograph of Ursula Franklin

(1921- )



Metallurgist and pioneer of archaeometry; humanitarian and pacifist

Renowned for her achievements in the field of metallurgy, Dr. Ursula Franklin has also worked tirelessly to bring a humanitarian and feminist voice to the world of science.

Franklin was born in Munich, Germany in 1921 and began her career during World War II. While a young science student, she was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp because her mother was Jewish. She spent the rest of the war repairing bombed buildings.

She received her PhD in experimental physics at the Technical University of Berlin in 1948, and emigrated to Canada the following year with a lifelong commitment to peace activism. For the next 15 years, Franklin worked as a senior research scientist at the Ontario Research Foundation. A specialist in the study of metals and alloys, she pioneered the development of archaeometry, which applies the modern techniques used in materials analysis to archaeology. In the early 1960s, she used this expertise to help investigate the levels of strontium 90 — a radioactive substance present in fallout from nuclear weapons testing — in children's teeth. This work was instrumental in the U.S. government's discussions about stopping nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere.

In 1967, Dr. Franklin joined the University of Toronto's Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science, and in 1984 became the first woman there to be granted the title of University Professor, the highest honour given by the university. While continuing her work in the dating of copper, bronze, metal and ceramic artifacts of prehistoric cultures in Canada and elsewhere, she was and continues to be actively involved in numerous humanitarian and feminist activities such as encouraging young women in science, working for peace and justice, and disseminating her thoughts on the social impacts of science and technology.

Franklin believes that science has been severely impoverished because women are discouraged from taking part in the exploration of knowledge. She feels that women scientists use the tools of science to answer questions that may not otherwise be asked by their male counterparts. She observes that women bring to science a spirit of cooperation as well as a concern for the connection between knowledge gained and its potential impact on communities, rather than its economic impacts. When looking at the history of women in science, Franklin asserts that women have established new fields of, and made some of the most profound contributions to, interdisciplinary research. She sees much of this innovation as a result of women scientists working on the margin of mainstream science and so seeing its failings more objectively.

Franklin's own experience with metals and alloys has taught her that just as the properties of an alloy are determined in part by its structure, so the study of structure is essential to understanding human affairs. Franklin views attempts to buy political and social solutions to problems without addressing the structures that cause them as bound to fail. Rather she recommends looking at problems holistically by examining both their causes and effects. Dr. Franklin's students often asked her why she didn't work on nuclear waste disposal. Her answer has always been that the moment there was a decision not to continue with nuclear energy or the production of things useful to nuclear weapons production she would work on nuclear waste. Doing disposal work only to make room for more nuclear waste is not interesting to her.

In 1989, Ursula Franklin delivered the Massey Lectures, originally broadcast as part of CBC Radio's Ideas series and subsequently published in book form. The lectures were called "The Real World of Technology" and were an attempt to understand how science and technology shape our society and are, in turn, shaped by the demands that society makes of them. Franklin argues that the technology developed since the Industrial Revolution has fostered a "culture of compliance." To combat the gradual transfer of power and control into fewer and fewer hands, she recommends that people trust their own senses and not allow others to censor their imaginations. She encourages people to become "citizen scientists," that is, to gain a general knowledge of scientific and technical information in order to understand issues and, if necessary, protest until there is a change in the structures of technology.

Dr. Franklin's work has received worldwide recognition and brought her many honours including honorary degrees from more than ten Canadian universities and nomination as a Companion of the Order of Canada. Perhaps the greatest of these honours, however, was the naming in 1995 by the Toronto Board of Education of a new public school, the Ursula Franklin Academy. Dr. Franklin takes an active interest in the work of this school, which attempts to integrate its math, science, and liberal arts curricula by means of innovative technologies.


Asking different questions [video recording] : women and science. — Producers, Merit Jensen Carr (Artemis), Signe Johansson (NFB), Margaret Pettigrew (NFB). — Montreal : National Film Board of Canada, 1996. — 1 cassette, 51 min., VHS 1/2 in. — Col.

Clarke, Jan. — " 'I would emphasize the joy of science' : an interview with Ursula Franklin". — Women's education = Éducation des femmes. — Vol. 9, no. 1 (Summer 1991). — P. 5-8

Franklin, Ursula M. — Every tool shapes the task : communities and the information highway. — Vancouver : Lazara Press, 1996. — 13 p.

_____. — "Peace : A necessity for an equal society". — Canadian woman studies = Les cahiers de la femme. - Vol. 9, no. 1 (Spring 1988). — P. 20-22

_____. — The real world of technology. —Toronto : Anansi, 1999. - 209 p.

_____. — Will women change technology or will technology change women? — Ottawa : Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women , c1985. — 23 p.

_____. — "Women and militarism". — Canadian woman studies = Les cahiers de la femme. - Vol. 9, no. 1 (Spring 1988). — P. 5-6

Franklin, Ursula M. et al. — Knowledge reconsidered : a feminist overview = Le savoir en question : vue d'ensemble féministe. — Ottawa : Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, 1984. — 110 p.

Prosser, David. — "Fighting the good fight". — Harrowsmith. — Vol. 18, no. 3 (June 1993). — P. 28, 30

Sprang, Jeff. — "Ursula Franklin Academy". — Education today. — Vol. 12, no. 1 (Winter 2000). — P. 10-11

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