William Frankland, Pioneering Allergist, Dies at 108
Dr. William Frankland, one of the top allergists of the 20th century and an indomitable researcher who helped legions of hay fever sneezers by distributing daily pollen counts to the British public, has died in London at 108.
The British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology announced his death on its website on Thursday. It gave no other details. He lived in a care home at the historic Charterhouse complex, a former monastery in London.
Dr. Frankland, who was among the world’s oldest active scientists, remained remarkably vigorous to the end, despite having come close to death several times in his long life.
He was born prematurely, weighing just over three pounds, and he contracted bovine tuberculosis as a child. Later, while serving in the British Army, he spent years as a malnourished prisoner of war in Japanese camps. He had another brush with death when he used himself as an experiment on a biting insect and had an anaphylaxis reaction.
Dr. Frankland was best known in professional circles for a number of groundbreaking clinical studies. In 1954, he proved that pollen proteins were the parts of plants most useful in preseason allergy inoculations, and in 1955 he debunked the efficacy of treating asthma with bacterial vaccines.
He was an early proponent of using allergen injections to desensitize patients with severe allergies, and developed immunotherapy serums for hay fever sufferers with pollen from one of the world’s largest pollen farms, which he operated outside London until the late 1960s.
It was while investigating desensitization to insect bites that Dr. Frankland allowed the South American insect Rhodnius prolixus to bite his arm at weekly intervals. The eighth bite sent him into life-threatening anaphylaxis, from which a nurse revived him with repeated shots of adrenaline.
Among the tens of thousands of patients that Dr. Frankland treated was the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who summoned the doctor to Baghdad in 1979. Dr. Frankland found that Mr. Hussein had no allergies but was suffering from the effects of excessive smoking, consuming as many as 40 cigarettes a day.
“I advised him to stop smoking,” Dr. Frankland told the medical journal The BMJ. “Three and a half months later he was dramatically better, and because he was so grateful, I was invited back to Baghdad with my family to have lunch with him.”
Dr. Frankland’s research included rare cases. One involved a patient who suspected that she was allergic to her partner’s semen. She reported, however, that she had no allergic reaction from sexual encounters with other men, in effect providing Dr. Frankland with data from a control group, as is often done in scientific experiments. But she advised him, “Those controls were not done for your benefit, only mine.”
Alfred William Frankland was born in Sussex, England, on March 19, 1912, one of twin boys of Henry and Alice Rose (West) Frankland. His father, a vicar in the Church of England, moved the family to Britain’s Lake District, where the boys grew up surrounded by farms. It was there that William discovered that he suffered from hay fever.
He attended St. Bees School in West Cumberland before studying medicine at Queen’s College, Oxford, and St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, now part of Imperial College London. After finishing his studies, he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps three days before the outbreak of World War II, anticipating that doctors would be needed. He was later sent to Singapore, where he arrived just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
By chance Dr. Frankland was sent to work in Tanglin Military Hospital in Singapore rather than the newly opened Alexandra Military Hospital there — thus eluding almost certain death. The Alexandra hospital was soon overrun by Japanese troops, who massacred the doctors, nurses and patients there. It was one of several times that luck kept him alive.
Dr. Frankland was taken prisoner on Feb. 15, 1942, and spent the remainder of the war in Japanese prison camps, underfed and overworked, treating the other men.
On his return to Britain, he took a post at St. Mary’s, where he worked with Alexander Fleming, who won the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of penicillin.
The mold that had contaminated Dr. Fleming’s Petri dishes decades earlier and led to the development of modern antibiotics had come, in fact, from the allergy department, which was directly below Dr. Fleming’s laboratory. Dr. Frankland correctly predicted that some patients would be allergic to the new wonder drug.
Dr. Frankland had a pollen trap installed on the roof of St. Mary’s and began distributing daily pollen counts to the British news media in the early 1960s. He was one of the first allergists to do so. Pollen counts are now a staple of weather reports around the world.
Dr. Frankland published more than a hundred articles and academic papers on allergies, including four that he wrote after turning 100. Among his many honors, he was named a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2015.
Survivors include his four children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Before entering Charterhouse, Dr. Frankland had lived alone in a Central London apartment that he had shared with his wife, Pauline (Jackson) Frankland, until her death in 2002. He cooked his own meals and, though he used a walking stick, followed a routine of daily exercises into his 100s.
Given his brushes with death, he was frequently asked what the secret of his longevity was. He would reply simply, “Luck.”