Otto Herzberg Frankel

Kt DAgSci Berlin DSc New Zealand FRS FAA FRSNZ



Otto Frankel

Otto Herzberg Frankel lived and worked in New Zealand for almost 23 of his 98 years. He came to Christchurch in early 1929 and left for Canberra in late 1951. During this time he made a major contribution to our national economy by improving the yield and baking quality of our wheat varieties; but also, and almost alone in this country, he fostered interest in the rapidly expanding fields of plant cytology and genetics, and maintained our slender links with overseas workers in these disciplines. In 1948, Frankel was elected a Fellow of our Society, and on more than one occasion I heard him say how deeply he valued this recognition from his adopted country, the first of many honours that came his way. His long and distinguished career has been described by Dr Lloyd Evans of Canberra in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, with a larger version in the Historical Records of Australian Science, both in 1999; I have therefore concentrated on Sir Otto’s New Zealand period, endeavouring to supplement Dr Evans’s excellent account.

Europe: 1900-29

Otto Frankel was born in Vienna on 4 November 1900, the third in a family of four boys. His father, Ludwig Herzberg-Frankel LLD, was a successful lawyer, and his mother, Thérèse Sommerstein, came from a family with prosperous estates in Eastern Galicia (Western Ukraine) far to the north-east of Vienna. Otto was taught at home by a tutor and a French governess and then, from 1910 to 1918, at the Piaristen Staatsgymnasium Wien VIII. He was given eight years of Latin, four of Greek, but little mathematics and less science. Otto then studied chemistry (under Willstätter of photosynthesis fame), physics and botany at the University of Munich for three semesters in 1919-20, followed by two semesters in 1920-21 at the Agricultural Institute of the University of Giessen. Then, with the support of his aunt Ann, his mother’s elder sister, he enrolled at the Agricultural University of Berlin in the autumn of 1922.

In Berlin, Otto was enthused by the geneticist Professor Erwin Baur (1875-1933) and found a direction for his life. He would study the gene, and in 1923 he began to investigate the linkage relations between 10 mutants in Antirrhinum majus. As an introduction to his thesis, he reviewed earlier linkage studies in plants. This gained him a doctorate in agriculture and led to his first publication, both in 1925; and in April of that year he married Mathilde (Tilli) Donsbach (1899-1989) in Berlin.

During 1925-27, Otto was employed, through a client of his father, as a plant breeder on a large private estate at Dioseg in Czechoslovakia, just east of Vienna, and was mainly concerned with sugar beet production and processing. His next job was obtained with the help of his cousin, the historian Lewis Namier (1888-1960), Ann’s son and an influential Zionist, who had suggested that Otto would be a useful member of a small team of scientists to be sent to Palestine. The objectas Evans explainswas "to establish a plant and animal breeding programme there and to act as a bridge between the Zionist Organisation and the Empire Marketing Board under the direction of John Boyd Orr, then Director of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen." At the successful interview in London, Orr urged Otto to visit the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge before going to Palestine, and there he met Rowland Biffen, the Director, and A E Watkins, who specialised in the cytology and genetics of wheat.

In Palestine, Otto found that the main emphasis of the project was on animal improvement. However, he gained experience in cytology by counting the chromosomes of the "Jaffa Orange" before asking to be returned to England. Here, some of Namier’s friends supported him, first in London and then at the Plant Breeding Institute where he went at their suggestion, and where Biffen asked him to look at fatuoid oats; and, here, he also read Jane Austen at Watkin’s suggestion to improve his English. While based in Cambridge, Otto visited South America during August-September 1928 to help report on the feasibility of a wheat industry in southern Brazil.

In late 1928, Otto was offered a permanent position in New Zealand. According to Evans, the offer arose when Boyd Orr was travelling across Canada by train, on which he met the newly appointed Secretary of the New Zealand DSIR, Ernest Marsden (1889-1970). Marsden told Orr that he was looking for a plant breeder for his new Wheat Research Institute and Orr recommended Frankel. I suggest, however, that this all-important meeting was a little less chancey. In a tribute on Sir Ernest’s 80th birthday, Lord Boyd-Orr recalled their "companionship at a meeting of scientists in Ottawa where the first steps were taken for the formation of the Imperial Agricultural Bureaux, now the Commonwealth Bureaux." I have not found the date of this meeting. Whatever the circumstances, Orr sent a cable to Biffen for Otto: "Will you accept post New Zealand beginning £400 per annum plus passage?"; and, although there were no further details, Otto trusted Orr and accepted. He took to New Zealand a seed collection from Watkins, an invaluable acquaintance with crop plants and people in other parts of the world, an international outlook, and a knowledge of recent developments in modern biology.

New Zealand: 1929-51

Otto Frankel arrived here from Cambridge on 30 March 1929, at age 28, and began work next day at Lincoln Agricultural College, where the Plant Breeding Section of the Wheat Research Institute was located. The other arm of the Institute was the chemistry laboratory in Montreal Street, Christchurch, near the Worcester Street corner. It was supervised by H E West. Both Frankel and West were responsible to F W Hilgendorf (1874-1942), the benevolent Professor of Agricultural Botany, and Hilgendorf in his turn was responsible to the Wheat Research Advisory Committee chaired by H G Denham, Professor of Chemistry at Canterbury University College. The secretary was F R Callaghan (1891-1980) of the DSIR Head Office, who became Frankel’s main contact in Wellington and later Departmental Head. This, then, was the framework within which Frankel earned his daily bread. He had inherited 163 lines selected from the intervarietal crossing programme begun by Hilgendorf in 1923, with the help latterly of his assistant J W Calder (1901-1972). But in his first season, Frankel began his own crosses, and Hilgendorf reported in November 1929: "Dr Frankel is now working long hours in making these crosses while the opportunity lasts." He added: "Dr Frankel’s field work is marked by care, accuracy and refinement of method."

By the end of 1929, Frankel had introduced two major aspects of modern biology to New Zealandmodern evolutionary theory and chromosome studiesas an aid to understanding the relationships and evolution of our native plants. At the monthly meeting of the Canterbury Philosophical Institute on 4 September 1929, he gave a lecture on "Genetics and Plant Breeding". This was published in April 1930, and on 8 May he sent a reprint to Leonard Cockayne in Wellington noting that he "was anxious to state the view that not only through hybridisation [Lotsy’s view favoured by Cockayne] but also through mutative changes of various classes, variation leading to the creation of new forms may and does occur." As for chromosomes, Frankel records that his work on the large native genus Hebe was begun in 1929 on the advice of Drs Cockayne and Allan. To be more precise, and as Cockayne wrote to Frankel on 11 June 1930, "What I want most of all is for you to study the cytology of some of our hybrids e.g. Hebe, Coprosma, Myrtus, Fuchsia, Melicope." But Frankel preferred species to hybrids, and, in an historic letter to Cockayne on 30 September 1930, he reported that he could not get good fixations in Coprosma, either from Riccarton Bush or from flower buds from Allan’s artificial hybrid material sent from the Plant Research Station, Palmerston North; however, "last year" (1929) he had obtained definite counts of 20 chromosomes during pollen development in Hebe allanii, Veronica lewisii, and V. youngii (a cultigen in the Botanic Gardens), and of 21 chromosomes in Hebe salicornioides; and he was almost certain that Hebe gigantea was a polyploid with about 40 chromosomes. He also made the important point that "New Zealand Veronicas possess chromosome numbers different from any European form determined so far." Expansion of this pioneer work was helped by J B Hair, who joined Frankel in 1932 as a masterate student from Canterbury College. Frankel was by now an Honorary Lecturer at Lincoln.

A change from wheat-breeding, cytology, and the Canterbury Plain lay in the mountains and skiing. A photograph of Frankel’s small lithe figure competing in the langlauf (cross-country) race at the New Zealand Ski Championships at Mount Cook appeared in the Auckland Weekly News for 6 September 1933; and he was later instrumental in founding the Alpine Sports Club at Lincoln College. Indeed, skiing was his favourite hobby, and he enjoyed it in many lands until the age of 90.

The first major achievement of the Wheat Research Institute was announced in 1934. The seventh cross made by Hilgendorf had been between Solid-straw Tuscan, the main variety grown in New Zealand, and White Fife, a Canadian wheat. With the help of Calder it was bred to the fifth generation and then handed over to Frankel for further selection. In the 1933/34 season he retained only one line, 7.03, and in 1934 described this as a new variety, Cross 7, "a new combination of high yield and baking quality." Its success was further assured by resistance to straw-break and lodging.

Despite the success of Cross 7, or his naturalisation on 14 February 1934, Frankel was now restless in his work. He believed that pasture plant breeding in New Zealand could be improved and wished to become involved; but his offers of co-operation with E B Levy of the Plant Research Station, Palmerston North, who was responsible for improving pastures, were resisted. However, by November, Frankel had met Levy and his newly appointed assistant L Corkill in Palmerston North, and a co-operative breeding programme involving Italian and perennial rye-grass, white and red clover and Lotus major had been agreed upon. But during the 1934/35 season, relations between Levy and Frankel deteriorated, and by April 1935 co-operation was on the rocks. Nor was Frankel successful, as he told Callaghan, in his efforts to communicate with Calder who was breeding rye-grass, red clover, cocksfoot and oats at the College.

After the 1935 harvest, Frankel returned to Europe, arriving in London on 20 June. He then visited research institutionsplant and animal, crop and pasture, milling and bakingin the following places: London, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Vienna, Germany, London (Imperial Botanical Conference), Amsterdam (Sixth International Botanical Conference), England, Scotland, London, the Continent again, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney. At Amsterdam, Frankel spoke on "Certain aspects of polyploidy in New Zealand hebes and veronicas." But probably his most exciting week was 19-26 July at the headquarters of the Institute of Plant Breeding in Leningrad. This huge organisation was devoted to the study of domesticated plants the world over and from all points of view. Frankel wrote of its famous Director and one of his heroes: "Professor Vavilov, one of the busiest men in Russia, took charge of me practically during my whole stay in Leningrad and in his energetic and stimulating way saw to it that not one hour was wasted; and since daylight lasted till about 11 pm and I rarely left him before dark, a great deal was to be seen each day." Another who influenced Frankel’s thinking was C D Darlington, Director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, where Frankel worked when in London and was introduced to the large chromosomes of Fritillaria, a change from the small ones in Hebe.

Frankel returned to Christchurch on 8 January 1936, and was immediately newsworthy because of his visit to Russia and his criticism of research in New Zealand. The Press published his photograph and his views on "Soviet Russia Today" and "Russian Lead in Research". In a third item he criticised "our tendency to require quick economic results" and emphasised the need for fundamental research and applied work to be closely related. But he unfortunately remarkedprobably off the cuffthat the Department of Agriculture was an accumulation of bureaucrats. He returned to his theme, but more diplomatically, with an article on "Agricultural Research" in the independent fortnightly Tomorrow. After praising the advisory service of our Department of Agriculture, he wrote of our "penny-in-the-slot" attitude to science, and our "tendency to develop research institutions on the lines of service stations".

Frankel’s report on his overseas visit (which could still bear publishing) was praised by Marsden and commented on by Levy, who concluded: "Dr Frankel’s report is excellent but as one would expect from his meagre knowledge of New Zealand grasslands lacks that parallel critical data that alone is really of value." Nor did Frankel’s proposal for a Plant Breeding Section receive much support. He envisaged five "divisions" each under a plant breeder. The first, under his own direction, dealt with Italian rye-grass, white and subterranean clover and wheat; the Palmerston North "branch" was under Corkill; three new plant breeders were to be appointed. The whole was to be under the charge of Dr Frankel. On 6 April 1936, Marsden acknowledged the suggestions as valuable "and we shall move as opportunity offers. The sending of the Agronomy Division of the Plant Research Bureau to Lincoln is a move in this direction." But it took a Second World War to add a second species to Frankel’s portfolio, and 14 years for the Agronomy Division to come under his wing.

In February 1937, Frankel’s and Hair’s work on Hebe and its close relatives was published. It confirmed and expanded Frankel’s 1929 observations on the chromosomes and reported on a large number of artificial crosses between species of the same and different numbers. It was conservative in applying this new information to taxonomy. The New Zealand veronicas were retained in that genus despite their quite different chromosome numbers because their capsules were said to be the same elsewhere. However, it was pioneer work, the first of its kind for New Zealand, although closely followed in July by Calder’s account of the chromosomes of native danthonias.

Otto and Tilli Frankel were divorced on 31 July 1937. From 1937 to 1939, Frankel was secretary of a committee that brought Jewish refugees from Austria to New Zealand. The chairman was Karl Popper, who had attended the same school as Otto in Vienna but in a lower class with Otto’s younger brother, Paul. In April 1939, Frankel was best man at the wedding of Frederick Page, the musician, and Evelyn Poulson, the artist. The bridesmaid was Margaret Anderson (1902-1997), art mistress at Rangi Ruru Girls’ School and Frankel’s wife-to-be. In August, Frankel attended the ill-fated Seventh International Congress of Genetics in Edinburgh. With war imminent, the Poles returned home on the second day, the Germans on the third, and the shortened conference ended only 5 days before war actually broke out. Frankel then spent 3 months at John Innes, mainly continuing his work on Fritillaria. He also wrote a paper on male sterility in Hebe, which appeared in 1940. His final word on the genus, in 1941, was mainly concerned with supporting Allan’s transfer of our veronicas to Hebe because of new information on the capsules. But Frankel also announced that Pygmea had 21 chromosomes and suggested its inclusion in Hebe as a Section. He was disappointed when Moore did not do this in the 1961 Flora of New Zealand.

Frankel’s ship arrived home on 8 December 1939, and he married Margaret that day. Her father, of the Anderson foundry firm, gave them a corner of his extensive property "Risingholme" in Opawa and they built a housesmall, but "advanced" for its timedesigned by Ernest Plishke, a refugee architect and Vienna contemporary of Otto. Two other new buildings should be mentioned. By 1936, the chemistry laboratory, with E W Hullet in charge, had moved to the Skelton and Frostick building, originally a shoe factory, in Hereford Street near Latimer Square; and in 1939 it moved into a new building behind this. It was visited on 23 October 1940, by the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser. The new building for the Plant Breeding Station of the Institute at Lincoln was opened for inspection on 30 April 1941. On both occasions Hilgendorf described the research in progress, whether breeding, milling or baking. But his mission was drawing to its close. He died suddenly in Wellington on 23 September 1942 (not 1943 as in Blair’s history of the College), and on 5 November Frankel was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of the Institute.

During the war, Frankel was in the National Military Reserve and involved in the Wheat Campaign. As a wartime measure, L G L Copp (1914-1987) joined him in June 1941 to work on sugar-beet variety trials; and when this work ceased in March 1945, Copp joined Frankel as a wheat breeder and became a worthy successor to him and to Hilgendorf. Wheat breeding had continued, of course, during the war years, and in 1947 appeals for the return of stolen seed of a promising new variety led to unexpected and welcome publicity. Minhinnick’s cartoon in the New Zealand Herald showed a happy Kiwi scattering grain to his giant chooks and explaining to a stern policeman and two officials looking over the fence "jest scientific feeding, that’s all". Frankel had already bred Cross 7 (1934), Tainui and Taiaroa (1939), and Fife Tuscan (1941). Now he released Hilgendorf (high baking quality) in 1947 and WRI-yielder (high yield) in 1948; and in that year he rounded off his investigation of a self-propagating structure change in the chromosomes of wheat during a return to John Innes.

With the death on 31 May 1948, of R A Calder, Director of the DSIR Agronomy Division, Lincoln, plans developed for a merger of Agronomy with the wheat breeding section of the WRI. The resulting Crop Research Division came into being on 1 April 1950, with Frankel as Director. At last his chance had come to create an organisation in his own image and he planned, of course, to introduce fundamental research. But in late July 1951 he accepted the position of Chief, Division of Plant Industry, CSIRO, and on 12 December began work in Canberra.

Australia and New Zealand: 1951-1998

Frankel’s first years in Canberra were not easy, but he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1953, and by the end of the year he could write: "I have now reached the stage when most of the organisation troubles are over, the building programme either settled or in good hands, and I can really come to grips with the research programme. Don’t take this too literallythere are still a hundred and one problemsbut not as awful as they were 2 years ago." And he could add that "there’ll be about eight of us doing genetics in Canberra before the year is out [] mainly experimental evolution of crop plants." And to help explain aberrations in the wheat inflorescence, he also began a series of co-operative investigations into the induction and development of the flower.

It took several years before there were any major additions to the original 1930’s building in Canberra, but in 1958 the Genetics building was completed, its extension in 1960, the Biochemistry building in 1961 and, in 1962, the phytotron CERES (Controlled Environment Research Laboratory). During this period, Otto was also on committees that monitored the design and construction of the new building for the Australian Academy of Science, of which he was elected a Fellow in 1954 and was Vice-President in 1959-60. His term as Chief of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry ended in 1962, and he then served on the CSIRO Executive until 1966, when he officially retired and was knighted.

In his retirement, Sir Otto became increasingly involved with the International Biological Programme, and concern for the conservation of wild plants was added to his earlier concern for domesticates. For the next 30 years he bestrode these worlds, as the Bibliography shows. His theme was the "nature, distribution, and preservation of genetic diversity" and our responsibilities towards our genetic resources. He spoke well and wrote well. In a remarkable section on "Evolutionary Ethics" in his 1970 Sir William Macleay Memorial Lecture, he reminded us that "we are also major operators. We are not the equivalent of an ice age or a rise in sea level: we are capable of prediction and of control. We have acquired evolutionary responsibility." In 1981, with the help of Michael Soulé, he added animals to his brief in their Conservation and Evolution. His last word, with A H D Brown and J J Burdon, is in The Conservation of Plant Biodiversity, published in 1995 only 3 years before his death.

Each summer the Frankels visited Christchurch to see Lady Frankel’s sister and to look up old friends. On 13 December 1979, Otto went to the Botanic Gardens with A D Thomson and myself to see the hebes in the Cockayne Memorial Garden. In February 1986, after a long absence, he returned to Lincoln for a Plant Breeding Symposium, and younger scientists were able to meet someone who had become a legend. Provocative as ever, he warned that the very success of the genetic resources movement was leading to large unwieldy collections difficult of access to the plant breeder. In December 1986, he opened the retrospective exhibition of works by his old friend Evelyn Page at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery. His last visit was in February 1996. In 1997, Lady Frankel died, and Sir Otto followed her on 21 November 1998. In New Zealand he is commemorated in the Frankel Building at Crop and Food Research, Lincoln, and remembered by many as a remarkable and kind man.


I am very grateful to Dr L T Evans, CSIRO, Canberra, for sending the proofs of his memoir in the Historical Records of Australian Science (particularly valuable for Sir Otto’s early years) and for allowing me to use the Bibliography. Dr A D Thomson kindly loaned me his Frankel file; and for other help I am indebted to Trish Faulkner, R W Cawley, J P Malcolm, R McNaughton and I D Sanders. Mr McNaughton typed the obituary, and Crop and Food Research, Lincoln, supplied the photograph.

— Eric Godley