William Frankland, a trailblazing allergist who helped ease the pain of hay-fever patients, asthmatics and allergy sufferers around the world, conducting early immunotherapy experiments and helping to make pollen counts a staple of weather forecasts, died April 2. He was 108 and still active in recent years, publishing a scientific paper in September.
His death was announced by the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology (BSACI), which did not provide additional information. Dr. Frankland had been living at a care home in London, and the Anaphylaxis Campaign — a British charity that he had supported since its founding in 1994 — confirmed he died Thursday but did not cite a cause.
Dr. Frankland was hailed as “the ‘grandfather’ of our specialty” by allergist Adam Fox, president of the BSACI, and was probably one of the longest-working scientists in any field. Born four weeks before the Titanic sank, he survived the 1918 flu pandemic, endured three years in captivity during World War II and overcame a life-threatening episode of anaphylactic shock, continuing his research long after he officially retired at age 65 from St. Mary’s Hospital in London.
“As an allergist, Bill dominated the field in the middle decades of the twentieth century,” Mark Jackson, a University of Exeter medical historian, said by email. “His work at St. Mary’s Hospital made the clinic there — now named after him — the most important and best-known specialist allergy center in the world, a place that clinicians were keen to visit to learn the latest diagnostic and therapeutic techniques.”
His research also established allergy “as a true science,” said allergist Michael Blaiss, executive medical director for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. “There were people doing allergy, but it wasn’t really much of a specialty” before Dr. Frankland’s pioneering research in the 1950s, Blaiss said in a phone interview.
The field was so undeveloped that Dr. Frankland was in his 30s, with six years of wartime medicine under his belt, when he finally realized that allergies had shaped his life since he was a boy in the Lake District of northern England, where his brother teased him for being unable to “help the local farmer make hay.”
The realization came during a period of professional indecision for Dr. Frankland, who had specialized in venereal disease before the war, planned to become a dermatologist in peacetime and ultimately deemed skin care uninteresting, turning to allergy after seeing a part-time job posting at St. Mary’s. He took an allergy test and learned he had hay fever.
Dr. Frankland went on to spend two years as a clinical assistant to Alexander Fleming, who received a share of the Nobel Prize for discovering the antibiotic penicillin. When Dr. Frankland risked his career in the early 1950s to test a widely held theory holding that bacterial vaccines could treat asthma, he received crucial support from Fleming, who encouraged him to conduct the experiment despite its costliness and unpopularity.
“The placebo injections gave exactly the same result as the very expensive ones,” Dr. Frankland later told Imperial College London, which oversees St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School. “I was afraid my chief might sack me!” Instead, he was invited to lecture around the world while still a junior doctor.
He later ran one of the world’s largest “pollen farms,” growing grasses and other allergens for medical research, and hired a full-time botanist to monitor pollen levels from the roof of the nurses’ quarters at St. Mary’s. In 1963, he began to report his findings to the British media, helping to spur the now-widespread publication of pollen counts to help patients and clinicians track seasonal allergies.
By then, Dr. Frankland was widely known for a 1954 paper that demonstrated the effectiveness of allergen immunotherapy, in which patients are given small doses of allergens such as pollen, dust mites and bee venom in an effort to alter the immune system’s response — in many cases eliminating the runny nose, cough, sneezing and red eyes that make allergies so miserable and debilitating for patients.
Dr. Frankland was not the first to study allergen immunotherapy, which St. Mary’s physicians Leonard Noon and John Freeman researched beginning in 1911. But Dr. Frankland’s experiment, conducted with his colleague Rosa Augustin, marked “the first controlled clinical trial of grass pollen immunotherapy,” according to the British Society for Immunology, and “established a firm scientific foundation for the practice of allergen immunotherapy,” which is often administered through shots.
Rising to oversee the allergy department at St. Mary’s, Dr. Frankland presided over allergy-shot treatments for more than 25,000 patients, in addition to aiding high-profile figures ranging from New York opera singers to, in 1979, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Britain was on good terms with Iraq in those days, and I implemented my rule of not discussing politics or religion and treated him just as I would any other patient,” Dr. Frankland told the Lancet medical journal in 2013. “He was being treated for asthma, due to mold spore allergy. He was not allergic, and did not have asthma.”
Instead, Hussein was simply smoking “40 cigarettes a day,” Dr. Frankland told the London Telegraph. “I told him to stop and if he wouldn’t I would refuse to come and see him again. I don’t think anyone had spoken to him like that before. I heard some time later that he had had a disagreement with his secretary of state for health, so he took him outside and shot him. Maybe I was lucky.”
Alfred William Frankland considered the episode just one of many brushes with death, part of a string of near-fatal experiences that began on March 19, 1912, when he was born six weeks early in the Sussex town of Battle. He and his identical twin brother each weighed 3 pounds 1 ounce; both were nursed to health, and his brother lived to age 83.
His father was a vicar in the Church of England, and Dr. Frankland traced his interest in medicine to a childhood case of tuberculosis that the local doctor struggled to diagnose. “He just kept us in bed. He had no idea what was wrong with us, just that we had a fever,” Dr. Frankland later told the Church Times newspaper. “I asked myself, ‘Why should this silly old man be a doctor? He doesn’t know how to deal with children.’ ”
Deciding that he could do better, Dr. Frankland studied medicine at the University of Oxford and St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps at the start of World War II and was working at a hospital in Singapore when the Japanese invaded in 1942.
He spent the next several years confined to a fetid, disease-ridden internment camp. After being liberated in 1945, he traveled home in a military convoy that encountered a storm over Burma, causing one of the planes to crash.
Dr. Frankland returned to work at St. Mary’s in 1946 and extended his allergy research to include dust and dry rot, which he gathered from bombed-out houses in postwar London. After retiring from the hospital in 1977, he spent two decades at Guy’s Hospital in London as an unpaid allergy consultant.
His wife of more than 60 years, the former Pauline Jackson, died in 2002. He had four children, but complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Dr. Frankland, who was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2015, acquired some notoriety among allergists for experimenting on himself with tropical insects in the 1950s. He once experimented with a bug that spreads Chagas’ disease, allowing it to bite his arm and suck blood once a week, only to experience an extreme allergic reaction during the eighth round of bloodletting.
A nurse monitoring the experiment left to fetch him a cup of tea before realizing he needed more serious medical aid. After two shots of adrenaline, Dr. Frankland was back on the job, only to require a third shot after having an additional, delayed reaction to the bug bite two hours later.
“So often, people say, ‘How is that you’ve lived so long?’ ” he told CNN in 2018. “And I say, ‘That’s just luck, nothing else.’ ”
Read more Washington Post obituaries Catherine Hamlin, OB/GYN who healed injured and ostracized mothers, dies at 96 Stanley Dudrick, whose surgical technique feeds those who can’t eat, dies at 84 Bernard Fisher, pioneering breast cancer surgeon-scientist, dies at 101