Sir Otto Herzberg Frankel [1900-1998]

By Colin WardFebruary 15th, 2011

Family background and early life

Otto Herzberg-Frankel was born in Vienna on 4 November 1900, the third of four sons of a prominent and wealthy lawyer. Frankel was a relatively uncommon name in Vienna at that time, but to differentiate himself from a more traditionally Jewish branch of the family, Otto’s paternal grandfather, a well-known author, added Herzberg from his mother’s name to become Herzberg-Frankel. After his father’s death, Otto chose to drop the hyphen and revert to Frankel.

Ludwig Herzberg-Frankel, Otto’s father, was a highly successful barrister in Vienna, effective both in the courtroom and as a public orator. Otto’s enjoyment of, and effectiveness in, public debate and persuasion were clearly shared with his father. What he called his ‘peasant instincts’, so important in his motivation to make his career in agriculture, came from his mother’s family. Thérèse Sommerstein was the youngest child of a family with several rural estates in Galicia. Her older sister Ann was an able and progressive farmer, and Otto’s early rural experiences were associated with visits to his aunt’s estate, where he was also impressed by the abilities and aristocratic manners of her husband, Joseph Bernstein vel Niemirovski. Their son, the British historian who later changed his name to Lewis Namier, also played a significant role in Otto’s career.

Fin-de-siècle Vienna was a culturally sophisticated and affluent city which attracted the adventurous and talented in many fields to become a hot-bed of cultural change in art, architecture, music, theatre and philosophy. This was the background to Otto’s life and a formative effect on his youth. But he also witnessed the collapse of the old Empire, along with the relative impoverishment of his family, at the end of the First World War. At its outset his father had volunteered for military service along with his motor car and his chauffeur. By its end there was no car but, as Otto’s brother Paul put it, the brothers had acquired the incentive to work.

Otto’s youth was quite tempestuous and unhappy, more because of his own problems than of his father’s domination. One of these was Otto’s sense of ‘homelessness’ which he ascribed to his father’s ‘distance’ and to not having a country to call ‘home’: they were Viennese Jews but not Jewish in any religious sense, nor Austrian, nor Polish.

Not only did Otto subsequently claim that he had no country, he also insisted that he had ‘no education’. In Otto’s early years, his father employed a tutor for his sons as well as a French governess. From 1910 to 1918, Otto attended the Piaristen Staatsgymnasiums Wien VIII, as did Karl Popper. Otto’s claim to no education was based on this being a classical rather than a modern school, with poor mathematics and next to no science but eight years of Latin and four of Greek. None of his teachers inspired him.

University education

The end of school coincided with the end of the war, when there was little chance of a young man without military service being admitted to the University in Vienna. However, under Otto’s leadership, a group of young people took over a disused military laboratory, obtained a copy of the practical course work from the Chemical Institute of the University, worked through it together without any lectures and were subsequently given credit for the course.

Besides chemistry, the young Otto had also become involved in communism, and was arrested on one occasion for addressing a street crowd. At about this time there had been a communist putsch in Munich and Otto went there to be interviewed by the celebrated professor of chemistry, Richard Willstätter. As a result, he was admitted to Munich University (1919-20) to study chemistry, botany and physics. However, after three semesters he had lost some of his enthusiasm for chemistry. The young idealist, concerned about the fight against hunger, wanted to do something more practical like agriculture.

The Agricultural Institute of the University of Giessen was recommended to Otto’s father, and he studied there under Professor Paul Gisevius for two semesters in 1920-21. Otto did not find his professor congenial and packed his bags again. He was still determined to learn about farming, however, and in 1922 returned to his aunt Ann’s estate in Galicia but soon decided he was not really interested in farm management. His aunt then persuaded him to go back to university, with her support.

In the autumn of 1922, he began his studies at the Agricultural University of Berlin, having been given credit for his earlier studies in Vienna, Munich and Giessen, as well as for his practical farm work. Luckily, at this stage Otto attended a lecture on plant genetics by Professor Erwin Baur, a charismatic personality and lecturer, which opened a new and wholly fascinating world. He was challenged by Baur’s claim to be able to work with genes and the genetic combinations of plants exactly like the chemist with his molecules and his formulae. Otto asked Baur in 1923 if he could begin research under him before his Diploma was completed, and Baur agreed in view of the educational disruptions following the war. However, this arrangement entailed a lot of commuting between the city of Berlin, where he was completing his Diploma studies, and the laboratories at Dahlem where Otto grew the large populations of Antirrhinum needed for his research, and this added to his sense of isolation from his fellow students.

The research problem allocated to him by Baur was one of the earliest studies of genetic linkage in plants. Baur suggested that he clarify the linkage relations between one specific mutant (A) and another nine mutants in Antirrhinum majus. In this Otto was rather unlucky because, after an extensive crossing and back-crossing program, he found that all but one of the mutations segregated independently of A, and to a large extent of one another. However, the introduction to his thesis was a comprehensive review of linkage in plants that brought high praise from Baur, led to his first published paper and earned his Doctorate in Agriculture from the University of Berlin in 1925.

Itinerant post-graduate

Through a client of his father, Otto was then employed for two years (1925-27) as a plant breeder on a large private estate at Dioseg, near Bratislava, after marrying his first wife, Mathilde Donsbach (1899-1989). Although sugar beet crops and their processing were the major activities on the estate, Otto began wheat and barley breeding programs, which helped his subsequent appointment in New Zealand.

He was part of a small team of scientists sent to Palestine to establish a plant and animal breeding program there. In Palestine, Otto found that he was not fully occupied because the main emphasis of the project was on animal improvement. However, he made friends with JD Oppenheim who had a microscope on which Otto began his cytological career by counting the chromosomes of the Jaffa orange, which led to his third paper. The highly political nature of the Palestine project resulted in its being visited in 1928 by an influential group led by Walter Elliot, Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. In the course of this visit Otto apparently made it clear that he did not wish to remain in Palestine and temporary support for him in England was arranged until a permanent position became available.

On returning to England Otto worked on fatuoid oats at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. This brief period in Cambridge was seminal in developing Otto’s interest in cytology and evolution, as well as his understanding of the English way of life.

Wheat breeding at Lincoln College, New Zealand (1929-51)

Details of his research at Lincoln College, near Christchurch, where he was to work until 1951 can be found in the memoir written by Lloyd Evans (available by following the link in the Sources below). On his arrival at Lincoln, Otto was briefed on the role of the Wheat Research Institute (WRI) by Professor FW Hilgendorf, the Director, with whom Otto was to have excellent relations. Although the improvement of milling and baking qualities was the prime objective of his breeding program, Otto also began an analysis of the yield components in wheat crops.

Otto soon felt on top of the demands of his wheat breeding program and sought the permission of his Director to undertake cytological research on native plants in the off season. Hilgendorf encouraged him and consulted New Zealand’s leading ecologist, Leonard Cockayne, who suggested Hebe as a large genus with some interspecific hybrids. The Hebe-Veronica complex required considerable travel, often in the mountains, which was attractive to Otto and he began cytological research on it in 1929 although he was aware, as he indicated in a letter to the DSIR head office, that such ‘fundamental’ work is not the type of work I am here for

In 1935, he undertook an overseas trip which introduced him to two of the scientists who most influenced his life, Cyril Darlington and Nicolai Vavilov. When Otto first met Cyril Darlington, he had written his highly influential Recent Advances in Cytology and was in the throes of discussing and revising it. Otto was also stimulated by the wide-ranging lunch time discussions at John Innes between JBS Haldane, Darlington and others.

The other major impact of Otto’s overseas trip in 1935 was his meeting with Nicolai Vavilov who warmly welcomed his visit to the USSR, arranged his visa and itinerary, and spent much of his time with Otto during the week he was in Leningrad. Otto was impressed by Vavilov’s passionate drive to identify general principles, by his style of leadership and by his stamina, if not by the poor state of his experimental plots. At the time of Otto’s visit Vavilov was preparing the second and third volumes of his Theoretical Bases of Plant Breeding, yet shared his time and ideas generously with Otto. Many years later Otto and Erna Bennett dedicated Genetic Resources in Plants to Vavilov, of whom Otto always had a photograph in his office.

Otto’s return to New Zealand opened a more than usually tempestuous phase in his life. He was divorced from his first wife in 1937, resumed his vitriolic exchanges with E Bruce Levy (Director of the DSIR Plant Research Station in Palmerston North) over the question of who should oversee pasture plant breeding, and got into hot water for some off-the-cuff comments to a reporter about the Department of Agriculture. Like other extempore remarks by Otto, these found their way into The Press, to the delight of some and the chagrin of the DSIR headquarters.

From early in 1934, Otto had pressed for his wider involvement in DSIR plant breeding activities, initially in relation to pasture plants such as perennial ryegrass. After his return from overseas Otto put forward a more ambitious proposal for a Plant Breeding Section of DSIR, with five Divisions spread between Lincoln and Palmerston North. For a time, Otto held high hopes of its establishment. He had also formulated plans for a Genetics Bureau to undertake fundamental genetic research with both plants and animals and to collaborate with the various groups of plant and animal breeders in New Zealand. However, strong opposition from Levy and others on the plant side, and lack of interest by Dr Dry of Massey College on the animal side, led to these proposals being dropped.

When Hilgendorf died in 1942, Otto was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Wheat Research Institute and his powers of leadership, his capacity for planning and his vision were at last given some scope. He had already proved himself to be an able plant breeder whose varieties Cross 7 (released in 1934), Taiaroa and Tainui (1939) and Fife-Tuscan (1941), and subsequently WRI-Yielder (1947), had raised wheat yields, while Hilgendorf (1948) had quite outstanding baking quality. Although the work of the WRI was appreciated by wheat growers, millers and bakers, it was not widely known until 1947 when the seed harvested from the experimental plots of a very promising line was stolen. Otto’s appeal for its return received headline treatment, bringing the Institute and its work into welcome prominence. He was reminded of the opera diva who became more famous for her stolen pearls than for her singing.

Nevertheless, these years were among Otto’s most scientifically productive. In 1947, he published a paper on plant collections, another on selection for yield in wheat, and an influential review on the theory of plant breeding for yield. Over the next three years his papers included accounts of two newly-released wheat varieties and of what he regarded as his best cytological work, on an inverted duplication in wheat, as well as the first paper in his long series on base sterile mutants in speltoid wheat, which he had first observed in 1929.

In 1949, the wheat breeding section of the WRI was merged with the DSIR Agronomy Division, also based at Lincoln. For the first year, Otto was Associate Director of the combined group, becoming Director in March 1950. As he says in his interview with McCarthy: for the first time I was able to look for scientific staff and I could think of the scientific content of a job rather than purely breeding barley or some root crop or other, and I could look for quality.

Chief of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry (1951-62)

He was recruited to CSIRO as Chief of the Division of Plant Industry in 1951, a position he held until 1962 when he was appointed to the CSIRO Executive.

As Chief he rejuvenated the Division and re-orientated it to, as he put it: science for the second half of the 20th century

His campaign to build an Australian phytotron to serve as a national facility for research on the responses of plants to climatic factors was the capstone to Otto’s reconstruction of the Division. On his first visit to the phytotron at the California Institute of Technology in 1953, where he met Lloyd Evans, he was greatly impressed by its potential value for agricultural research in a country like Australia with such a wide range of climatic conditions. This would be an expensive facility, especially for the biological sciences at that time, and the ‘big science’ element was a challenge. But Otto also wanted the Australian phytotron to be novel and distinctive in both engineering design and architecture. Clunies Ross was supportive, and Otto soon enlisted the enthusiastic cooperation of RN Morse, Officer-in-Charge of the CSIRO Engineering Section, and his staff. He recruited Lloyd Evans in 1956 to oversee its construction and the phytotron was officially opened by Prime Minister Robert Menzies. As Lloyd Evans recalled in his AAS interview with Professor Bob Crompton in 2003:
He did us proud. He had been a great supporter.

On the CSIRO Executive (1962-66)

Otto was persuaded by RN Robertson to succeed him in 1962 as a member of the Executive of CSIRO. He would rather have remained in the Division, preferring always to fight for something than against it, distrusting the ‘management’ of science, and enjoying the irreverence of young colleagues. But he sensed that a need to fight for basic research within CSIRO was emerging. He also sensed a need to protect the Division of Plant Industry, by then the largest in CSIRO, from being split, which would reduce the interactions and cross-fertilisation between disciplines that he had tried to foster. He may also have had expectations of succession to the Chairmanship of CSIRO.

However, he found little satisfaction in his work, missed the contact with active researchers and missed his home and garden through having to spend most of his time in Melbourne. Otto’s record as Chief made it clear that he was excellent at choosing staff given his subtle, merciless, multidimensional judgement of people, and he had expected to deploy those skills in the choice of new Chiefs of Divisions, but even there he was thwarted.

It was fortunate, therefore, that just at this juncture a subject in which he had long been interested, especially since visiting Vavilov in Leningrad, namely the conservation of genetic resources, began to emerge on agendas for international action. Otto soon became a key figure in the movement and remained so for thirty years after his official retirement from CSIRO in 1966.



On retirement, Otto returned to the Division of Plant Industry as an Honorary Research Fellow, which allowed him to resume active research in genetics (focusing on the base sterile mutants of speltoid wheats) and to play a more active role in the International Genetics Federation.

Throughout his life, after hearing that lecture by Baur when he was in his early twenties, Otto saw himself primarily as a geneticist. Altogether he attended ten International Genetics Congresses, beginning with the 6th at Edinburgh in 1939. He was a Vice-President and Treasurer of the International Genetics Federation from 1968 to 1973 and, according to MJD White, played a large part in bringing together pure and applied geneticists in order to confront these most critical problems of the Earth’s biota in an intelligent, informed and humane manner

Work with FAO, IBP on genetic resources

As long ago as 1923, NI Vavilov had warned of the need to conserve, as well as to use, the range of genetic variation within crop plants in the face of agricultural change. With the initiation of the International Biological Program (IBP) in 1963, concern for such ‘genetic erosion’ was heightened. He served as Chairman of the National Committee for the International Biological Program where he provided sustained and dynamic leadership of the Australian efforts, and was a member of ICSU’s Special Committee for IBP.

Otto had not been keen to be involved in the IBP, but at the urging of RN Robertson and CH Waddington (Vice-President of IBP and an old friend from his early days in Cambridge), he took part in the 1st General Assembly at Paris in 1964. The entry of the IBP, and of Otto, into the field resulted in a transformation in public awareness of the problem and plans for action. The program, drafted by Otto in 1965, led to a clearer definition of the various kinds of genetic resources, a strategy for their conservation with priority on the land races, and an emphasis on information and availability. The realisation that IBP could not achieve this on its own led Otto to meet RB Sen, the Director-General of FAO, in 1965, to explore the prospects for joint efforts. Both the IBP and FAO welcomed the proposed collaboration, and Otto was invited by Sen to act as a consultant in 1966, to review the activities and responsibilities of FAO, and to prepare plans for a meeting in 1967. This integration of effort by IBP and FAO continued until the end of the IBP in 1974.

The 1967 FAO/IBP Conference on The Exploration, Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources was a landmark for the genetic resources movement. In both its planning and the reworking of its proceedings, Otto and Erna Bennett coined such phrases as genetic resources and genetic erosion. The conference itself led to a program for FAO-initiated international action, while the book had a substantial impact on the scientific community.

Otto published several papers on genetic resources issues through this period, many of them aimed at increasing public awareness of the problems. One of the finest of these ‘ in the estimation of Soulé and Mills and Mills ‘ was his Macleay Memorial Lecture entitled ‘Variation – the essence of life’ in which he argues that the scale of human impact on genetic variation within both domesticated and natural communities is now such that we can no longer claim evolutionary innocence: We have acquired ‘evolutionary responsibility’ and must develop an ‘evolutionary ethic’

Otto’s international activities included assessing the report of the IBP/FAO Panel of Experts on the establishment of a network of regional genetic resource centres plus a coordinating centre to recommend priorities and organise training and other activities of the network, which would be associated with FAO and presenting the findings to the Technical Advisory Committee of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in April 1972.

Two months later Otto unexpectedly found himself given an opportunity to address the United Nations Conference for the Human Environment, in Stockholm, on genetic resources. He had been asked by FAO to prepare a background paper on this subject for the conference, with recommendations. Several delegates moved the adoption of these recommendations, and another requested that Otto be allowed to address the conference. He relished the opportunity, his recommendations were adopted, and the world’s news media carried his message. He became a cult figure at Stockholm and genetic resources became an international issue, requiring consideration by national governments and inviting the concern of public interest groups. The genetic conservation wave began to roll, fourteen years before the term ‘biodiversity’ was coined.

Otto’s most widely admired and influential paper, ‘Genetic conservation: our evolutionary responsibility’, presented at the 13th International Congress of Genetics in Berkeley, had already been published. Regarded by MJD White as a landmark in the cultural evolution of the human species

Other activities related to science

In New Zealand throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Otto was an outspoken advocate of high-quality basic research. In 1956, when designs for an Academy building were first being discussed, a sketch in the classical style, decorated with columns, was produced by a member of Council. Otto found it appalling and suggested that a design committee should be appointed. Otto, as a member of the committee under the Chairmanship of the President, Sir Mark Oliphant, sought advice on architects to be approached and procedures to be followed and chaired the meeting at which the design by Grounds, Romberg and Boyd was recommended to Council. Otto was then appointed to the Building Committee where, as he later put it: In everything I was concerned with style and Oliphant with quality and I think we made a very good team

The bold, modern, symbolic design of the Academy dome delighted him. In his tribute to Roy Grounds he wrote: The Academy building helped to generate a corporate consciousness and, thanks to its architectural distinction, it enhanced a growing pride in the Academy. For the public it became a symbol of Australian science.

Through his service on Council of the Australian Academy of Science and on several committees, he had opportunities to shape the practices as well as the architecture of the Academy. In 1979, he was appointed Chairman of a committee of review to report to the 25th anniversary meeting of the Australian Academy on the appropriateness of its activities and structure for the next decades. The committee made a lot of recommendations for change, many of which were acted upon. Whatever the Academy is now, it ought to be something better

Otto Frankel ‘ the man

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.

Left to right: Jim Peacock (Chief CSIRO Plant Industry), Sir Otto Frankel; his wife Margaret; Lloyd Evans, (former colleague and former Chief CSIRO Plant Industry) at Sir Otto’s 80th birthday celebration at CSIRO Plant Industry in 1980.

Complex, mercurial, charismatic, acerbic, persuasive, polarising, practical, ironical, elegant, concerned: these are some of the adjectives that spring to mind when colleagues and friends recall Otto. His complex mixture of practical peasant and intellectual aristocrat flowered when he played host in the elegant houses and gardens he and his wife Margaret had created.

Whatever opinion you expressed, whatever side of an issue you took, he would challenge it to sharpen both your thinking and his, a practice he learned from his uncle Joseph Niemirovski. Where some focus on points of agreement, Otto homed in on points of disagreement. It could be tiresome, but also illuminating, because he was quick and resourceful in debate and liked to test all facets of any idea.

Otto’s practicality was also expressed in his attitude to research. He was an unwavering proponent of the need for basic research, provided it was ‘first class’, as the key to enlarging our understanding of the world about us. His loyalty to CSIRO and to Clunies Ross derived from their support of that approach in the CSIRO culture of the 1950s, when he joined. Nevertheless, he was also an agriculturist at heart, deeply concerned with the world’s food and population problems, and he encouraged long-term research with a bearing on those problems. The long-term was his ‘time scale of concern’, and the internationality of science his delight.

In old age he remained determinedly active, alert, involved and irreverent, consciously exercising both his body and his mind. He would not go gentle into that good night

Honours and awards


1988 Foreign Associate, US National Academy of Science
1983 Honorary Member, The Japan Academy
1979 Honorary Life Fellow, Pacific Science Association
1969 Correspondent Étranger, French Academy of Agricultural Science
1954 Foundation Fellow, Australian Academy of Science
1953 Fellow, Royal Society London
1948 Fellow, Royal Society of New Zealand

Imperial Honours

1966 Knight Bachelor


1983 Distinguished Economic Botanist
1951 DSc (NZ)