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Frankel, Sir Otto Herzberg (1900–1998)

by W. J. Peacock and Elizabeth S. Dennis

This article was published online in 2023

Sir Otto Herzberg Frankel (1900–1998), plant scientist, was born on 4 November 1900 in Vienna, Austro-Hungarian Empire, third of four sons of Jewish parents Ludwig Herzberg-Frankel, barrister, and his wife Therese, née Sommerstein. His mother came from a family with estates in Galicia. Educated at the Piaristen Staatsgymnasiums Wien VIII, Otto studied at universities in Vienna, Munich, and Giessen. In 1925 he married Mathilde Donsbach in Berlin. That year he obtained a doctorate in agriculture from the Agricultural University of Berlin for a study of genetic linkage in plants. His mentor, Erwin Baur, nurtured his desire to carry out research of a practical nature, and he saw that plant breeding would allow him to contribute to a much-needed increase of food production globally. Between 1925 and 1927 he was a plant breeder at a private estate near Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. He then travelled to Palestine to help create plant and animal breeding programs, before moving to Cambridge, England, where he held a temporary position at the university’s Plant Breeding Institute.

Appointed a plant geneticist at the Wheat Research Institute of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Zealand, in 1929 Frankel and his wife settled in Christchurch. There he concentrated on improving grain baking and milling quality and yield. While he was able to improve baking quality, his attempts to increase yield were less successful, leading him to see a need for basic research to define the major components of yield. He failed to convince his superiors to increase fundamental research at the DSIR, but in 1942 he became director of the Wheat Research Institute, in which role he was able to foster such work to a limited extent. Divorced in 1936, on 8 December 1939 at Christchurch he had married Margaret Anderson, an art teacher and artist. After the WRI’s wheat breeding section combined with DSIR’s agronomy division in 1949, he became associate director of the merged division, and the following year he was appointed director. In 1951 the University of New Zealand awarded him a doctorate of science.

The Frankels settled in Canberra in 1951, after Otto was appointed chief of the division of plant industry at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). His lack of progress in promoting the need for basic plant science in New Zealand had probably stimulated him to make the move. Ian Clunies Ross, the chairman of CSIRO, charged him with building up fundamental research in the division, and supported him in appointing top plant scientists from around the world. Frankel organised the division in groupings of scientists in research disciplines rather than in projects on specific crops and pastures. The strengthening of high-quality research led to increased recognition of the division at an international level and stimulated its attraction to visiting research fellows from overseas.

Frankel was a powerful spokesperson for top research, and this enabled him to convince (Sir) Robert Menzies’s government to fund the construction of a phytotron, which facilitated research using controlled climate growth conditions, and enabled research on problems and applications in agriculture of importance to Australia. His rebuilding and redirection of the research in plant industry had a substantial impact on plant research and agriculture in the State Departments of Agriculture and the universities. CSIRO scientists worked with their university counterparts, training young researchers in the latest work on plant responses to environmental conditions, strengthening the reputation of Australian plant scientists in a number of fields. Within plant industry he built up strong teams in genetics, physiology, and biochemistry.

In 1962 Frankel was appointed to the executive of CSIRO. This position gave him the opportunity to advocate for basic research. He also continued to research the floral development of wheat, publishing on the evolution and importance of speltoid wheats, but his work did not lead to major breakthroughs on the fertility of the wheat inflorescence. His promotion, with colleagues, of the importance of conserving the genetic resources of the wild relatives of crop and pasture plants, however, did place him in a position of global influence. Following his retirement in 1966, he worked as a consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), before returning to Australia and becoming an honorary research fellow at CSIRO. He played an important role in the activities of the international biological program of the FAO and of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

At the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Frankel gave an address that initiated broad public knowledge of the issue of genetic conservation. His recommendations on the care and use of genetic resources were adopted by the conference, and he became one of the most important scientists in the field. In 1974 he was active in establishing the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources in the CGIAR. An appreciation of the value of this area of research had been kindled in him through visiting Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian plant geographer and breeder. He made one more major contribution, as a co-author with Michael Soulé of Conservation and Evolution (1981). He remained an activist, particularly in partnership with CSIRO scientists, arguing for the value and management of genetic resources. To the IBPGR he offered advice and ideas that helped establish nationally based collections, some specialising in particular crops and their wild relatives. As a mark of recognition, the IBPGR set up the Vavilov-Frankel fellowship program supporting scientists entering the field.

An outstanding figure in the Australian science community, Frankel was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1948), the Royal Society of London (1953), and the Australian Academy of Science (1954), and he became a foreign associate of the United States of America’s National Academy of Sciences (1988). In 1966 he was knighted. Sir Otto had played a central role in the establishment of the Australian Academy of Science, including the architecture of its building. ‘A complex but practical man’ who ‘delighted in music, art and argument’ (Evans 1998, 18), he ‘could be rough or kindly, bored or engaged, impossible or altogether charming by turns’ (Evans 1999, 495). Trout fishing, gardening, and skiing were among his hobbies; until the age of ninety he skied at Guthega, in the Snowy Mountains. Predeceased by his wife, and childless, he died on 21 November 1998 in Canberra, mourned internationally as a founding figure in genetic resource science. Through his research and advocacy he had ‘imprinted on the world the need for biodiversity at the level of the gene, not the species’ (Philip 1999, 6).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Evans, Lloyd. ‘Otto Herzberg Frankel 1900–1998.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 12, no. 4 (December 1999): 495–516
  • Evans, Lloyd. ‘Sir Otto Frankel.’ Age (Melbourne), 30 November 1998, 18
  • Frankel, Otto. ‘Sir Otto Frankel (1900–1998), Plant Physiologist.’ Interview by Max Blythe, 1993. Australian Academy of Science. Accessed 14 April 2022. Copy held on ADB file
  • Juddery, Bruce. ‘Viennese Charmer a “Stormy Petrel” in the Science World.’ Canberra Times, 3 December 1998, 10
  • Philip, John. ‘Sir Otto Frankel.’ Independent (London), 28 January 1999, Thursday Review 6
  • Ward, Colin. ‘Sir Otto Herzberg Frankel [1900–1998].’ CSIROpedia. 15 February 2011. Accessed 9 May 2022. Copy held on ADB file

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Citation details

W. J. Peacock and Elizabeth S. Dennis, 'Frankel, Sir Otto Herzberg (1900–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 27 March 2023.

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