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Ursula Martius Franklin: Activist-Physicist

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. This week, I looked into the life of a scientist who worked hard to make the world a better place – Ursula Martius Franklin.


Ursula Martius Franklin was born in 1921 in Munich, Germany, into a Jewish family. Ursula's parents tried to send their only child to Britain to save her from the Nazi persecution of Jews, sadly, unsuccessfully. Ursula ended up in a forced labor camp and her parents in a different concentration camp. Thankfully, all three members of the family survived the Holocaust and were reunited after the war. This traumatic experience became one of the reasons Ursula dedicated her life to humanitarian work and peace activism.

Ursula chose to study science at the Technical University of Berlin since this field couldn't be censored by the state. She earned her Ph.D. in experimental physics in 1948 and the following year she moved to Canada for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto. Ursula married engineer Fred Franklin, together they had 2 children and became followers of Quakerism.

Ursula spent 15 years working at the Ontario Research Foundation. From 1967, she worked as an expert in metallurgy and materails science at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Engineering, promoted to full professor in 1973, University Professor in 1984, and professor emerita in 1987. For 2 years, she directed the university's Museum Study Program and was named a Fellow of the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education and Senior Fellow of Massey College.

Throughout her life, Ursula worked in different areas. Her work in archaeometry consisted of studying Chinese black mirrors or dating glass beads. She participated in the Baby Tooth Survey, studying radioactive isotopes from nuclear weapon tests in children's teeth. As part of the Science Council of Canada, she recommended ways to preserve nature and protect the environment.

A big part of Ursula's life was her philosophy, which was, among other things, influenced by her tragic childhood, her field of study, and Quakerism. She famously described the difference between holistic and prescriptive tools. The former gives the user freedom and control over their work, while the latter divides the work into steps between many people that need to be managed. New technologies tend to be presented as holistic but end up taking away our freedom. She also promoted acoustic ecology, criticizing noise pollution.

Ursula was an activist, mainly when it came to pacifism and feminism. She participated in a campaign for conscientious objectors to be able to redirect their income taxes from military uses to peaceful ones, unsuccessfully. She took part in a successful lawsuit against the University of Toronto regarding unfair wage gaps between equally qualified men and women.

Ursula died in 2016 and donated her academic and personal archives to 2 universities.

Ursula Martius Franklin lived by her philosophy, often voicing her anti-war beliefs and supporting women and the community. She used her knowledge of technology and intertwined it with her way of thinking. This resulted in her steady life-long career, during which she could encourage and support young women interested in scientific fields.






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