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Frankel, Sir Otto Herzberg (1900–1998)

by J. Lloyd Evans and John Philip

Geneticist Sir Otto Frankel was born in Vienna on November 4 1900. He died in Canberra recently, aged 98.

An Austrian who came to Australia via New Zealand, Otto Frankel advanced agricultural science in this country as head of the CSIRO’s plant industry division from 1951 to 1961. In retirement, he did some of his greatest work, arguing the cause of biodiversity — the preservation of the genetic pool, rather than individual species — long before it became fashionable.

Otto Herzberg Frankel’s father was a wealthy Jewish barrister in Vienna, and his mother’s family had several rural estates in Galicia. His agricultural bent had its origins in boyhood visits to his aunt’s estate. The aunt’s son became the historian Lewis Namier, who later played a role in Frankel’s career.

Young Otto was always impatient and wilful. When he was four, his governess and his tutor bought him a chocolate mousse from a kiosk, and he was enjoined to stay put on a park bench and eat his mousse while governess and tutor disappeared into the bushes to assuage their carnal desires.

Otto devoured the mousse and grew tired of waiting, so he told the kiosk owner he had been abandoned and demanded to be taken home. The governess and tutor were sacked — an outcome not foreseen by Otto, who loved his governess and was devastated to lose her.

From the age of nine, Frankel attended a classical Staatsgymnasium. He learned little mathematics and less science, but studied Latin for eight years and Greek for four. At the same school was the future philosopher Karl Popper, two years his junior.

Frankel was small and short-sighted, and the Austro-Hungarian military rejected him as unfit for cannon fodder. The university also was closed to him because he wasn’t a war hero. But he studied the university curriculum with some other outsiders and eventually gained credit for his informal studies and attended universities in Vienna, Munich and Giessen. He went on to gain his doctorate in Berlin for an early study of genetic linkage.

From 1925 to 1927, the young Dr Frankel worked as a plant breeder at a large private estate near Bratislava. At the suggestion of Namier, Frankel became part of a team sent to Palestine to establish a plant and animal breeding program. Salaries were met jointly by the British Colonial Office and Zionist supporters. The team was directed by John (later Lord) Boyd-Orr.

Frankel’s stay in Palestine was brief and was followed by a temporary post in plant breeding in Cambridge, where he improved his English by reading all of Jane Austen. This itinerant phase ended in 1929 after the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research asked Boyd-Orr’s advice on a plant breeder and geneticist for its new Wheat Research Institute.

Frankel and his wife, Mathilde (they were married in Berlin in 1925) left for New Zealand in 1929. The institute was at Lincoln College, near Christchurch. He remained there for 22 years, but was not in tune with conservative Christchurch. He later wrote: “I always felt a foreigner and was made to feel that. Only in the ski huts was I accepted.”

But his scientific work prospered. He not only bred a series of highly successful wheat varieties, but also carried out research in cytogenetics, which led to this election to fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1948) and of the Royal Society of London (1953).

Popper had gone to Christchurch in 1937, and he and Frankel tried to assist the immigration of Jews following the Anschluss, but the Immigration Minister thought there were already too many intellectuals in the country.

Frankel was divorced in 1936 and in 1939 he married Margaret Anderson, a Christchurch artist and art teacher. The Frankels’ shared aesthetic interests found expression in the three modern houses they built during their 58 years together. The first house surprised Christchurch, and figured later in two architectural books and in a recent exhibition in Canberra.

In 1951 Ian (later Sir Ian) Clunies-Ross, chairman of the CSIRO, sought a new chief for the large but somewhat moribund Division of Plant Industry. Frankel was appointed and charged with raising its standard and performance.

Before long, the division had become Australia’s leading plant biological institute, respected throughout the world.

Frankel was a convinced exponent of Rivett’s principle of research management: find the best person to head up the task, then give him the maximum freedom and help to get on with it. He viewed sadly the counterproductive Thatcherite erosion of the Rivett ethos in recent times.

In 1962 he was elevated to the executive of CSIRO, and on retirement in 1966 returned to plant industry as an honorary research fellow, continuing his cytogenetic research, and his skiing, until he was 90.

At 95, he published his last book, The Conservation of Plant Biodiversity, written jointly with two younger colleagues.

His major achievement on the world scene took place after his formal retirement. He became involved in the genetic resources issue through the International Biological Program of UNESCO. He persuaded the Food and Agriculture Organisation to join forces with IBP and chaired their joint committee of experts until it disbanded when the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources was established in 1974.

During this period, Frankel organised several international conferences on the issues, edited two major books and took the lead in mobilising interest and resources, defining the problems and proposing solutions.

In his Mackay Memorial Lecture (1970), he argued that humankind had “acquired evolutionary responsibility” and must develop an evolutionary ethic. This and several related papers by Frankel present “the conceptual and moral agenda for the discipline of conservation genetics”, as biologist Michael Soule has put it.

Frankel and his panel of experts kept the genetic resources issue alive throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, long before the term “biodiversity” was coined and became a popular cause. Indeed, it was his address to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 that launched widespread public awareness of the problem.

As a member of the Australian Academy of Science Committee involved in the design and construction of the academy building, Frankel got to know Sir Roy Grounds. Later, Grounds designed the Frankels’ third house in Campbell, with its splendid garden testifying to one more of Frankel’s skills and interests. Others included food, wine, skiing, trout fishing, art and argument — especially with the young.

Otto Frankel was knighted in 1966. His first and second wives pre-deceased him.

* Sydney Morning Herald

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Citation details

J. Lloyd Evans and John Philip, 'Frankel, Sir Otto Herzberg (1900–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/frankel-sir-otto-herzberg-32204/text40707, accessed 29 January 2023.

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