Allergy specialist

Born: March 19, 1912;

Died, April 2, 2020.

WILLIAM Frankland, who has died aged 108, was a doctor whose career spanned more than 80 years and whose research led to his being described as the “grandfather of allergy research”.

He worked with Sir Alexander Fleming, popularised the idea of the “pollen count” to aid sufferers from hay fever, conducted experiments on himself to research theories of desensitisation, advised Saddam Hussein to give up cigarettes, worked long after his nominal retirement on peanut anaphylaxis, and continued to publish academic papers long after his hundredth birthday; until his death, he was the oldest survivor of the Japanese PoW camps, having been held for three-and-a-half years in Singapore, as well as the oldest Oxford graduate.

In an interview a few days before his death, Frankland was able to draw on personal memories of the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-1920, and compare it with the coronavirus crisis, which he described as “worrying”, and which limited the celebrations marking his 108th birthday.

Frankland’s research centred on immunology and allergies, and in the 1950s he produced the first systematic, double-blind placebo trials of autologous bacterial vaccines; this followed trials, conducted over years and involving almost 30,000 patients, that demonstrated that antihistamines had no effect on the incidence of cases of pollen asthma.

Arthur William Frankland was born, the younger (by quarter of an hour) of identical twins, on March 19, 1912, at Battle in Sussex; his father, the Revd Henry Frankland, was a curate near Bexhill-on-Sea and, later, vicar of St Andrew’s, Dacre, a parish in Cumberland. The family had northern roots; his mother Alice’s family owned an ironmongers in Barnsley, and Bill and his twin John (who later became a clergyman), and their elder siblings Basil and Ella grew up in the Lake District.

He was educated at Rossall School near Fleetwood, a prep school founded for the children of clergymen, then at Carlisle Grammar School and St Bees in West Cumbria. His interest in medicine was sparked after he, Jack and their sister had a childhood bout of bovine tuberculosis, and Bill found the doctor, called from Penrith, clueless.

Convinced he could do better, he studied medicine at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where his last year was overshadowed by the illness and death of his sister from pericarditis. He contemplated abandoning his studies, but graduated in 1934 and completed his medical training at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School (now part of Imperial College London).

With war looming, he joined the RAMC, initially serving at Tidworth Military Hospital before being posted to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. In 1941, he married his wife Pauline, but was immediately sent on a two-day course – “which ought to have taken six months” – on tropical medicine, and shipped to Singapore, arriving a week before Pearl Harbor.

After the fall of the island, he spent three-and-a-half years as a PoW, tending 200 prisoners who “all had beriberi and dengue” and were starving. By the time of their liberation, Frankland weighed six stone. For many years, he never spoke of his experiences, even to his family.

He spent some time in dermatology, but it did not interest him, and in 1946 he got a six-week trial in the allergy department at St Mary’s; it launched a distinguished career. The allergy clinic at the hospital is now named for him, as is an award for Outstanding Service to Allergy Research.

In the mid-1950s, he worked as an assistant to Fleming, who by then was a global celebrity with a huge pile of correspondence, but little clinical practice; the pair did, however, do much research that anticipated antimicrobial resistance to penicillin.

Frankland developed the “hygiene hypothesis” of immunity and produced pioneering work on the role of grass pollen (to which he had always himself been sensitive) in triggering hay fever and asthma. This involved managing a huge pollen farm and, from 1953, weekly pollen counts. By the mid-1960s, these were being published in newspapers and are now a regular feature of televised weather reports.

In 1979, while in Baghdad, he was called to deal with Saddam Hussein, who suspected he had asthma; Frankland told him it was his 40-a-day cigarette intake that was the problem, and the Iraqi president gave up that day – something Frankland rather regretted, though he counted himself better off than Saddam’s secretary of state for health, who had a similar disagreement with the dictator, who “took him outside and shot him. Maybe I was lucky.”

He officially retired in 1977, but continued as an unpaid consultant at Guy’s Hospital in London and to publish, notably on peanut allergies and paediatrics. In 2012, aged 99, he was an expert witness in a driving case involving a bee sting; when he was 103, he was appointed MBE and became the oldest guest on Desert Island Discs. He continued to publish even after that, producing a paper on fungi aged 107.

He co-founded and was president of what is now the British Allergy Society and the Anaphylaxis Campaign, amongst many other groups, and received numerous awards. He maintained a strong Christian faith, reading the Bible daily. His wife died in 2002; when he was 106, he finally moved into the Charterhouse, in the City of London, after being confined to a wheelchair with cervical spondylotic myelopathy. He is survived by his two sons and two daughters.