Sir Otto Frankel (1900-1998), plant physiologist

Sir Otto Frankel

Sir Otto Frankel was a geneticist by training, plant breeder by occupation, cytologist by inclination and genetic conservationist by acclaim. Apart from his personal research, Otto was a highly effective builder and leader of research groups, Socratic gadfly to the scientific establishment, and high prophet of the genetic resources conservation movement. His career in science was unusual in that his most widely acclaimed work was done after his official retirement.

Interviewed by Dr Max Blythe in 1993.


Cursedly independent from a very early age

Sir Otto Frankel, it's good to be able to talk today to someone who has made such a massive commitment and contribution to gene conservation. First, though, can I take you back to beginnings? You were born in Vienna in 1900, I believe.

I really don't remember much of my childhood, but I don't think either of my parents was an especially powerful influence on me. I went to school in Vienna, but after that I was interested to move away – not because there was any unkindness in my parental home but just because from my very early days I was rather an individualist and cursedly independent. I was also a naive young man, stupidly idealistic. I was anxious to go to Russia, with no idea that I wouldn't have lived very long, had I gone there. I became a Communist and didn't shed that until years later.

Similarly, my own stupidity made me take up agriculture. I had no idea of how to do any farming or produce anything, but after the First War the world was very hungry, especially central Europe, where I was studying chemistry in Munich. Suddenly it occurred to me, 'The world is hungry. Why am I wasting my time on chemistry? I should be doing agriculture.' And so I started studying agriculture in another university, in the western Germany town of Giessen.

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The simple matter of becoming a geneticist

Then I got so tired of studying that I gave it up altogether, until an old aunt of mine (a farmer on whose farm I was working) said to me, 'Otto, you're not an idiot. You're quite an intelligent young man. Don't waste your life like this. Go and study properly.' With her financial help I went to the Agricultural University of Berlin, which had a very high scientific reputation.

In my second year there I heard Erwin Baur, a very distinguished German geneticist, lecturing about genetics – something which was completely new to me; I'd never even heard of it before. I was fascinated. I thought, 'Well, this is it!' After a few lectures I went to Baur and said, 'Professor, can I do a thesis with you?' He said yes, when could I start? 'Next week.' He fixed a time for me to go and see him about it; I started my thesis; and I became a geneticist. It was as simple as that.

I worked on the snapdragon, antirrhinum, which Baur had made quite a famous object. It is now very much in the forefront in molecular work and people have done wonderful work on it – but still based on the background information provided by the work of my generation. Without that part of my life I don't know what would have become of me. My doctoral thesis included the first review on linkage in plants, where there was already quite a literature, which was then published in the German genetical journal as a major contribution.

What happened after that?

Well, although I was Dr Frankel by then, I had nowhere to go, nothing to do in life. It was very hard. One of my father's clients, an Austrian baron, had a large sugar factory and farms producing sugar beet in Slovakia, very close to the Austrian border, and my father arranged that I would be able to work there without pay. So that is where I went.

I was still far too young to apply for academic posts, and anyway I hadn't contemplated that. At the back of my mind I wanted to produce food. And Russia was still at the back of my mind, but in my naivety I had no idea how to do anything about it. I just sat there, not learning anything. But I did gain a little bit of experience; there was no-one who knew more than I did.

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An Austrian Jew's entry into the British Empire

Were you hindered at that time by your Jewish background?

I'm sure I was. I really didn't have any openings. Working in Germany seemed unthinkable, partly because of the Jewish background.

But that background became very useful. (I hope you won't mind if I tell you another personal story.) One day I got a letter inviting me to come to London in connection with a post in Palestine as research officer in a team in which the Empire Marketing Board was involved. This Board was an imperialist move after the First World War to establish connections with the Empire – commercial connections on behalf of the motherland, rather than on behalf of the colonies. But the Board also had a committee to establish research schemes in the dominions and colonies. The emphasis was on mineral deficiencies, especially minor element deficiencies, which were quite fashionable at the time, being very important in animal production. A number of minor elements had been discovered, but the question was where else they existed.

The chairman of the research committee was Major Elliott, DSc, a member of parliament who had a close affiliation with the Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen. And the Institute's director, Dr John Boyd Orr – later Sir John and then Lord Boyd Orr, the first director-general of FAO – interviewed me, very informally, in London.

In fact, my first dinner in London was in the House of Commons, where Walter Elliott had invited my cousin, Lewis Namier – who was already a distinguished modern historian with the chair at Manchester, and later became Sir Lewis. At that time he was the political secretary to Weizmann, the founder of Zionism. A group of Conservative politicians affiliated to Lord Balfour (of the Balfour Declaration for the Jewish national home) was attempting to assist the Zionist development, and Elliott and Balfour's niece, Mrs Blanche Dugdale, were the centre of this group. This research scheme on which I was engaged, then, was a cooperative venture between the Empire Marketing Board and the Zionist organisation, but actually administered and run by the Colonial Office.

So I was appointed by the Colonial Office and went to Palestine with a young Aberdeen man from the Rowett Institute, John Crichton, with whom I became firm friends and who taught me a lot of very colloquial English, with a great many swear-words! And that was my entry into the British Empire.

An amazing experience. How long were you in Palestine?

I stayed there for 9 or 10 months. But I was a plant geneticist and breeder, and animal nutrition really wasn't my field. I had been promised that if I didn't like it in Palestine they would bring me back to England and help me find a new job in my field, and so I came back – first to London and later to Cambridge.

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A Cambridge introduction to cytogenetics

You were in Cambridge for nearly a year then, in the '20s. What were you engaged upon? It certainly impressed people.

I was working in the Plant Breeding Institute (which was part of the university) with A E Watkins, a very good wheat cytogeneticist and evolutionist. I had worked on wheat in Czechoslovakia, but it was Watkins who brought me into the cytogenetics of it. I learned a lot from him. He was a nice chap, who among other thing introduced me to English literature – he made me read Jane Austen and a lot more which was quite unknown to me, and seminal.

Watkins was very interested in establishing a collection of land races. He was obtaining material, in Cambridge, through the British Board of Trade. Its officials in different parts of the world, including Mediterranean and Near Eastern countries, went into markets and collected samples of seed lots that were for sale. Watkins generously shared his samples with me, and later when I came to New Zealand I had about 3000 in my collection.

Really, the science of it was based on the work of the remarkable Nikolay Vavilov, a Russian explorer and plant geneticist, plant geographer and collector. And 10 years later, in 1935, I spent a week with him in Leningrad. That link with Watkins and Vavilov in my Cambridge days influenced me greatly throughout my life. The cytogenetics of wheat became my field in New Zealand for many years.

I think your move to New Zealand had something to do with Biffen, who had been your first contact in Cambridge. Is that right?

Biffen was the Professor, but I saw him only once when I arrived and, of course, paid my respects. I never saw him again until he brought me the telegram which started me on the way to New Zealand.

That telegram is another story of the utmost chance. It came from John Orr, who had crossed Canada by train (as one did in those days) with Ernest Marsden – an English atomic physicist who had worked under Rutherford and had come to New Zealand as an administrator of education, I think. When New Zealand set up a Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), as everyone did at about that time, Marsden became its head. So Marsden told Orr that having established a dairy research institute and appointed a cereal chemist, he was now establishing a wheat research institute and looking for a wheat breeder. It seems to me that Orr pricked up his ears at this and said, 'I have got him for you.' The result was his telegram to Biffen, who asked me if I was interested. Of course I was. And that greatly important New Zealand chapter of my life lasted for 23 years or so.

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The New Zealand years: chance encounters, enduring benefits

Tell me about those New Zealand years, Otto. You went to a government-type job?

Very much, because I was appointed to the staff of the Wheat Research Institute under the DSIR. It was interesting enough, and I could do other things as well. I became very good friends with my director, F W Hildendorf, who was a leading man in agricultural science development in New Zealand and also Professor of Botany at Lincoln College, in the University of New Zealand. When he died, I took over from him.

During those DSIR years I did a lot of work, not only on wheat but also in the cytology of quite a different plant. In fact, that was the work for which I was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1953.

The main outcome of your New Zealand work would have been the wheat strains you created, I suppose.

Oh well, I did some very difficult cytogenetic work there which was published in a series of scientific papers. But in my mind, as I look back at my life, none of this was really outstanding or as important as the work on genetic resources, most of which came after I formally retired. I look on the work we did on genetic resources and the genetics of conservation as my main contribution, the thing my name is reasonably well known for.

Wasn't it in New Zealand that you married your present wife?

My second wife, yes. I always think, you know, that through that chance interview on the railway train between Orr and Marsden she got a wonderful husband!

But in 1951 you moved to Australia. Did that also happen by chance?

In effect, yes. I had never seriously thought of looking for a job until quite late in my stay in New Zealand, when I had a row with the chairman of the Public Service Board (a personal friend). I wanted to appoint to a job a young Australian who wanted to continue his Australian salary level until the equivalent salary under our scale caught up to it. But this would have meant circumventing our very fixed salary system by a few hundred pounds – a trivial amount – and the Commissioner refused to let me do it. I thought his reason was plainly stupid, and as I walked out I said to a man from our head office, 'The next job that's going! I mean it.'

Then, one day, a colleague asked whether I had looked at the Australian advertisement that was on the noticeboard. When I admitted that I never looked there, he said, 'You ought to. You are the only one here who could take an interest in that one.' Well, I took it off the board, wrote a letter of interest and named referees, and was invited to come to Melbourne. Had this man not spoken to me about the job, oddly enough, I would have missed it.

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Promoting good science in the CSIRO

You came to the CSIRO, where you remained.

Yes, and straight away I was enormously impressed. It was a different, larger world.

The post was as head of the largest division in CSIRO, the Division of Plant Industry, and the selection committee consisted of a number of university professors (several of whom became my good friends later) and some heads in CSIRO. I wasn't terribly keen, actually, when I was taken to Canberra and saw so many difficulties there. The main difficulty was, as I told the chairman of CSIRO, Sir Ian Clunies Ross, the next day, that I felt terribly ignorant. I had previous experience of hardly any field in the Division, and I told him I just felt so inadequate to fill this post that I really couldn't accept it if it were offered. But that impressed him enormously, as I realised later on, because I was the opposite of self-advertising.

As we talked, I kept on asking what they had done to find a more suitable person. I said, 'How about so-and-so?' and that impressed them even more. I couldn't understand why they didn't appoint the man who was acting chief, a distinguished ecologist and pasture expert, but Clunies Ross said simply, 'He would make it into a pasture research place, but we want very much more than that. We want good science.' So I was offered the job, and good science they got – in the end, for him perhaps a bit too much science and not enough agriculture. We went on to have a close, friendly relationship, however, and he played a big role in my life.

In the late '50s your administrative work grew, when you were on the Executive for four years. Did you enjoy that role?

No, I didn't, although really I was quite a good administrator. When it was offered to me, I accepted it because the large divisions were being disrupted and made into smaller ones but Plant Industry as it had evolved was such a good place, so productive, and had assembled such a very good staff that I didn't want it disrupted. I wanted to appoint my successor and see that he was safeguarded. With that done, the place got better and better rather than weaker and weaker as I had feared it might. It's a highly distinguished institution now, of considerable world reputation. I know I am given a lot of credit for this, but I did at least sow the seeds to make the beginning possible.

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Linking developmental genetics with plant physiology

Clearly that saved the Division. With such a big administrative role, though, did you have a chance to do bench work?

I always had a small group, usually of two people, working with me on the genetics work which I had started and which ran through my life until the '70s, when it turned to physiology rather than cytogenetics.

I just thought you looked at a lot of chromosomes all the time.

No, not in this work. This was developmental genetics, work on the genetics and development of the wheat flower, and it was very difficult. We had discovered two different systems of genes which are responsible for the development of the wheat flower and can be found in a group of mutants called speltoids. They are similar to spelt, which is a species of the Triticeae and is closely related to our bread wheats. It is distinguished by a large, complex mutation involving several genes.

If this mutation is present, it can be transferred from mutants to bread wheat. When it is there, a different system of flower formation is revealed once the gene responsible for non-speltoidy is removed, and it is this secondary system which I studied throughout the years, using physiological methods. In Plant Industry we had developed a phytotron – that was one of my major achievements in Australia – and so I could use it as a place to do the physiological work. The series of papers which resulted didn't end till long after I retired. (I stayed on in the Division of Plant Industry doing this work, in addition to the international work on genetic resources.)

Your work changed the production of wheat and flour. Did it have an economic outcome?

No, not really. But it was of considerable academic interest.

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'Let's call it Genetic Resources!'

How did you eventually become involved in working on genetic resources?

Well, there were two components of the curious way that came about. In the 1960s I was asked to represent Australia on the international scene. As it happened, Ledyard Stebbins – a very distinguished friend of mine and a well-known American evolutionist and taxonomist – took a leading part in the earliest stages of the International Biological Programme, and because he thought I should become interested in what became known as gene pools, he bullied me into taking over that field in the new IBP. So this is how it all started.

To make a long story short, it got me into the Food and Agriculture Organisation as a temporary consultant to advise on what they ought to be doing about genetic resources, as we later called it. I was one day sitting in my office in FAO when in came Hermann Kuckuck, a German agricultural scientist, younger than I, whom I had known a little. He told me a very interesting story, that extremely important genetic resources in Iran and in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) were disappearing. This was quite new to me and it made an enormous impact, because I had been interested in plant collecting and plant collections for many years, almost from my student days. As I then followed this up and got information about land races – the old peasant varieties which had been selected by farmers and also, very largely, by natural selection, and which had been the real resources of plant breeders ever since plant breeding started – so my interest in genetic conservation grew.

An international meeting of experts in Rome, which I organised, was the formal beginning of the whole campaign to assemble and to salvage the genetic wealth that had been accumulated in different parts of the world where agriculture had evolved. That was really the beginning of it for me, and the beginning of the movement to save genetic resources. At that 1967 meeting, I was talking to my colleague Erna Bennett, who had come to FAO to help with the final phases of organising this conference, about what we were going to call this. And together we said, 'Genetic Resources!' That's where the name comes from, and that is how we started the campaign against the loss of plant and animal species. And I'm still very much involved.

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Genetic diversity in nature reserves

What was the other component of your involvement in genetic resources work?

That was an invitation to give a Macleay Memorial Lecture, in a series which had been established by the Linnean Society of New South Wales. I wasn't actually very intrigued, but such distinguished people had given that lecture before that I thought it would be pretty immodest if I were to refuse.

I was going to talk about what I had done before, but whilst I was thinking about genetic conservation it suddenly occurred to me, 'We plant breeders have all these land races and wild relatives of crops as our resources, and we bring them together, we cross them and we select. But what happens in nature reserves?' God would have to do it, and I couldn't see God coming down and making all these crosses! How would Nature have the diversity to select from for natural selection to occur when the environment changed – say if the climate hotted up or got dry or wet? As that sank in to this dumbskull head, I thought, 'This is quite something. There must be genetic diversity in nature reserves.' And this is why the Macleay Lecture is, to a degree, quite seminal. People hadn't talked about this. Perhaps everyone took it for granted, but no-one had emphasised it. And now it's become a bandwagon and it's being overemphasised.

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Honest science for self-sustaining ecosystems

Tell me about the book you are working on at present, Otto.

It is like a sequel to the one that came out of the contributions to the 1967 conference, which became really the first bible of genetic conservation. In writing The Conservation of Plant Biodiversity, Dr Tony Brown (A H D Brown), Dr Jeremy Burdon and I are trying to establish a scientific balance. Biodiversity has become a catchword of the first order, but in this book one of the subjects we are dealing with is justification for species conservation.

You see, conservation takes two major forms. One is the conservation of communities, which we strongly advocate, and the other is conservation of individual species, whether of particular significance or not. Many people, including very distinguished American biologists, now say that everything must be preserved – simply, as one of them said to me the other day, 'Because it's there.' To me that makes little sense, so in this book we discuss various aspects of species conservation, among many other things, in a scientific way.

The three of us are firm that the important issue is the conservation of natural areas, although we have some differences about letting things die out. I am quite cheerful about that; I see no reason for attempting to preserve everything just because it's there. There must be a degree of selectivity. But I am all for preserving as many ecosystems as we can contrive to. I don't think we are winning in that battle, however, because of the increase in human populations everywhere. We can't win until we ourselves stop growing. This is not just about gene pools but about communities – complex communities which can sustain themselves and develop through natural selection.

Will your book be published soon?

We have a contract with Cambridge University Press for termination at the end of this year. Each of us has three chapters to write. I have written mine, and revised and re-revised them, but my colleagues are not as far advanced because they have a lot of other things to do. Besides their own research, they have to earn their keep, and their jobs have become very arduous: CSIRO has become burdened with an enormous amount of administration, and they have got to write reports and help find money for their work. They have become subject to a change which I personally cannot approve of, but which is a reality. They are very busy people.

In addition, we need an introductory chapter which sets the scene. I have written much of this, but when they have done a bit more work I will have to write some more introduction to refer to their chapters. And then there will be a summing up, in which we have to stress what we believe is important in the conservation of plant biodiversity. There we have to come out as honest scientists.

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