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The 106-year-old doctor

Bill Frankland thinks there were eight times when he might have died – not including the time he told Saddam Hussein to stop smoking. He looks back over a career spanning the entire history of the ‘simply marvellous’ NHS

All doctors have stories to tell about their patients, but few are as intriguing as that of Bill Frankland. The 106-year-old allergist recalls being summoned to Iraq to treat Saddam Hussein.

‘I was told that he was on desensitising injections against fungal spores because he was allergic to them and he’d got bad asthma,’ he says. ‘In fact, he wasn’t allergic… and he didn’t have asthma but what he did do was smoke more than 40 cigarettes a day and that what was the cause of his chest trouble.’

Hussein was so addicted that Dr Frankland did not think he would quit so told him there was no point him returning to see him again.

‘I also said to him, “I treat you as a patient, not head of state. I treat you in the same way as I might treat a man, a beggar or someone else.” That was a silly thing to say; I compared him [to] a ne’er-do-well beggar.’

In fact, Hussein did stop smoking and Dr Frankland returned to Iraq three and a half months later with his wife and then-19-year-old daughter – one of his four children – to visit his ‘very nice patient’ at his palace.

Dubbed the ‘grandfather of allergy’ (he is actually a great-grandfather), Dr Frankland received an MBE in 2015 for his services to allergy research. His achievements include introducing the public sharing of pollen counts, which became a fixture of weather forecasts, and conducting the first double blind control trial of desensitisation in 1954.

He is sitting at a desk by a first-floor window when we meet at his central London home, the birthday card he received from the Queen for his 105th birthday proudly on display. He was due another shortly after we spoke.

A charming portrait painting of himself – in which he is wearing the same striped tie in which he is dressed – hangs on the wall above his right shoulder (pictured below). He planned to take it with him when he moved to residential care, a move now successfully completed.

Having worked at St Mary’s Hospital until retiring at the age of 65, he spent the next 20 years at Guy’s (19 of which he says were unpaid) before continuing to act as an expert witness. Although he reads as much as he can about medical advances, the GMC no longer allows him to see patients.

‘We had a row,’ says Dr Frankland, who consulted the BMA for the first and only time during his career for legal advice on the matter about six years ago before choosing not to take action.

 

Countermeasure

Born in 1912, Dr Frankland decided on a career in medicine after he disliked the way a doctor treated him, his brother and sister when they were ill with bovine tuberculosis as children. He was then inspired by Swedish physician Axel Munthe’s ‘marvellous’ memoirs, The Story of San Michele.

He studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where there were no female students, and St Mary’s Hospital Medical School (now part of Imperial College London). He remembers being taken to see women with puerperal sepsis being treated with the first supply from Germany of a new ‘magic drug’ – prontosil rubrum. In so doing, he witnessed the ‘beginning of the sulphonamides’ and the ‘antibacterial era’.

Dr Frankland also recalls how Alexander Fleming, who had discovered lysozyme, would make medical students put lemon drops in their eyes to try and catch their tears. ‘If you could catch even one drop of tear you could dilute this 100,000 times and it was still antibacterial,’ he says.

After qualifying as a doctor in 1938, Dr Frankland served with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, spending three and a half years as a prisoner of war held by the Japanese in Singapore.

He says the atom bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved his life, as machine gun posts had been installed opposite his camp’s parade ground only days before.

‘The Emperor had stated that if the Americans landed in Japan, all prisoners of war – 120,000 of them – would be shot,’ he adds.

Dr Frankland’s first medical job was working at St Mary’s under the school’s dean, Charles Wilson, later Lord Moran, Winston Churchill’s doctor. He welcomed Aneurin Bevan’s ‘simply marvellous’ idea for a national health service a decade later – ‘It didn’t affect me in any way at all’ – but feels not enough money is being put into the NHS in the UK today.

 

Rank and file

He is also concerned that there are not enough allergists and clinical immunologists to look at all the advances being made in allergy research.

‘I think eventually what will happen [is] we will be treating individually when we know what [a patient’s] genes are,’ he says, explaining that he believes genetics will be used to discern why some people react to some pollens, animals or fungal spores but others do not.

It is a topic of personal interest to Dr Frankland, who had an identical twin brother, Jack. There was one difference between the pair, however: Dr Frankland had hay fever for 90 years – ‘I’ve grown out of it now,’ he says – but his twin did not. ‘I must have a gene that is different, just one amino acid or something,’ says Dr Frankland, who nearly died after suffering severe anaphylaxis when conducting a desensitisation experiment on himself with a bloodsucking insect.

'If the Americans landed in Japan, all prisoners of war – 120,000 of them – would be shot'

He was clinical assistant to Fleming for the last two years of the Scottish physician’s life. ‘I had to report to him… to tell him about the ward,’ he says. ‘He wasn’t interested in clinical medicine, he was only interested in bacteriology.’

It was at St Mary’s Hospital that Fleming had earlier discovered penicillin in 1928. Dr Frankland says the contamination of the plate that led to this discovery came from the floor below, where allergists were growing the very rare non-seasonal mould penicillium notatum.

‘The real reason for the beginning of the antibacterial era of penicillin really was a result of what the allergy department was doing and I’m very proud of that because I’m an allergist,’ he says.

He is concerned about the growing antimicrobial resistance. ‘In 1936, I was listening to a lecture by Professor Fleming, as he was in those days, and he said when we finally have learnt the trick of how to produce large amounts of penicillin to treat patients what will happen is it will be overused and bacteria will come resistant to it,’ he says. Then a student, Dr Frankland admits he wondered what Fleming, who started his talk by extolling the virtue of penicillin in treating war wounds and diseases, was talking about.

As to what can be done to tackle the problem, Dr Frankland thinks vets, who ‘use vast amounts’ of antimicrobials, are among the guilty parties.

He plays his own part in the fight. ‘At my age I have all sorts of complaints which doctors think might be benefitted by tablets and I just say, “no, no”,’ he laughs.

So if not drugs, what is the secret to a longer life? ‘I can tell you that easily,’ he says.

‘It’s just luck. I think there are eight times when I really might, or should, have been killed and each time I escaped.’