Obituary: Sir Otto Frankel

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The Independent Culture
OTTO FRANKEL imprinted on the world the need for biodiversity at the level of the gene, not the species. This, his most famous work, came after his formal retirement. After 29 chequered early years, he had 22 fruitful ones in New Zealand, and 47 of high achievement in Australia.

Frankel and his three brothers were keen rivals, and all became distinguished. Their average age at death exceeded 90. Max, a solicitor/ accountant, spent the last half of his life in New Zealand. In Britain Theodor set up the Scottish Pulp and Paper Mills, and Paul (CBE 1981) founded Petroleum Economics Ltd.

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

The young Otto was impatient and wilful. One year his Christmas presents went to his brothers: Otto had struck his mother. Once, when he was four, his governess and his tutor took him to a nearby park. The tutor bought him a chocolate mouse from the kiosk, and he was enjoined to stay put on a park bench while governess and tutor disappeared into the bushes to assuage their carnal desires. Otto devoured the mouse rapidly and soon 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. He loved his governess and was devastated to lose her.

From the ages of nine to 17 he attended a classical Staatsgymnasium. He learnt little mathematics and less science, but eight years of Latin and four of Greek. At the same school was 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 not open to him: he was not a war hero. In the end he overcame the barriers, received some credit for informal studies, and went on to gain his doctorate in Berlin for an early study of genetic linkage.

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

Frankel's brief stay in Palestine was followed by a temporary post in plant breeding in Cambridge. There he improved his still-imperfect English by reading all of Jane Austen; and he took a secret trip to Brazil and Argentina to advise the bankers Lazard Bros on prospects for the wheat industry. This itinerant phase ended after New Zealand asked Boyd-Orr's advice on a plant breeder and geneticist for its new Wheat Research Institute.

Otto and his wife Mathilde (they were married in Berlin in 1925) came to New Zealand in 1929. The institute was at Lincoln College near Christchurch. Frankel was not in tune with conservative Christchurch and later wrote, "I always felt a foreigner and was made to feel that. Only in the ski huts was I accepted."

But his science prospered. Before Frankel New Zealand bread was often gooey, grey, and inedible. The fault lay in the wheat types used, which were ill-fitted to New Zealand's climate. Frankel bred new varieties and transformed New Zealand bread into palatable human food. He carried out research in cytogenetics also, which gained him election to fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1948 and the Royal Society of London in 1953.

In 1935 Frankel travelled to Europe, largely at his own expense. He established close personal relations with world figures in genetics such as C.D. Darlington, J.B.S. Haldane, and N.I. Vavilov. Stalin later ordained that T.D. Lysenko's concepts of plant development were correct, and that Vavilov's methods, based in genetics, were a Western deviation. This led to Vavilov's imprisonment and death. Frankel counted Vavilov as one of his heroes, and displayed his photograph in his office.

Karl Popper had come to Christchurch in 1937, and he and Frankel tried to assist the immigration of Jews following the Anschluss. They dealt, however, with a Minister for Immigration who 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 elegant modern houses they built during their 58 happy years together. The first house surprised Christchurch, and later figured in two architectural books and a Canberra exhibition.

In 1951 the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) sought a new chief for the large but somewhat moribund Division of Plant Industry. Frankel was appointed and charged with raising its standards and performance. It was his great achievement that before long the division had become Australia's leading plant biological institute, highly respected on the world scene. Frankel was a convinced exponent of the then current CSIRO 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 counter-productive erosion of the CSIRO ethos in recent times.

On his retirement in 1966 Frankel became 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 colleagues.

From 1964 Frankel had been involved in the genetic resources issue through the International Biological Program (IBP). He persuaded the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to join forces with IBP and chaired their joint committee of experts. Frankel organised several international conferences on the issues, edited two major books, and took the lead in mobilising concern and resources, defining the problems, and proposing solutions. He argued that mankind had "acquired evolutionary responsibility" and must develop an evolutionary ethic. As M.E. Soule, his co-author on Conservation and Evolution (1981), put it, Frankel presented "the conceptual and moral agenda for the discipline of conservation genetics".

Frankel and his panel of experts kept the genetic resources issue alive throughout the 1960s and 1970s, long before the term biodiversity was coined and became a popular cause. Indeed, it was his address to the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 which launched widespread public awareness of the problem.

The distinguished Australian architect Sir Roy Grounds designed the Frankels' third house in Canberra, with its splendid garden testifying to one of Otto's skills and interests. Others included good food, good wine, skiing, trout fishing, art, and argument, especially with the young.

John Philip

Otto Herzberg Frankel, geneticist: born Vienna 4 November 1900; Plant Geneticist, Wheat Research Institute, New Zealand 1929-42, Chief Executive Officer 1942-49; Director, Crop Research Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Zealand 1949-51; Chief, Division of Plant Industry, CSIRO, Australia 1951-62, member of Executive 1962-66, Honorary Research Fellow 1966-98; FRS 1953; Kt 1966; twice married; died Canberra 21 November 1998.