Skip to main content

William (Bill) Frankland 1912 – 2020

I had the pleasure of knowing Bill for over 40 years, and in all that time I have never known him be negative or belittle anyone. He was the perfect gentleman. Bill grew up in the Lake District where he went to St Bees School, after which he did his preclinical studies at Queen’s College Oxford and his clinical training at St Mary’s Hospital in London. As well as being academically talented he was a great sportsman. He was a county standard middle-distance runner and played rugby for London universities.

Bill Frankland

At the outset of the Second World War he joined the army Medical Corps and was sent to Singapore in 1941, arriving in November before the Japanese invasion in 1942. Bill and a colleague had to choose between the Alexandra and Tanglin hospitals. It was decided on a coin toss; fortunately, Bill went to Tanglin, as the Japanese soldiers killed all the patients and staff at the Alexandra hospital, including one patient who was under a general anesthetic. As Bill said at least he wouldn’t have felt a thing. Bill was initially imprisoned in a camp near Changi. The British soldiers had an impromptu game of rugby against the Australian prisoners. Their star was EE “Weary” Dunlop, a Sydney surgeon. The British team won, Bill said he scored three tries to Weary’s one.

Bill flew to the Rangoon (now Yangon) and then by ship at the end of the war when he was reunited with his wife, Pauline, and his work at St Mary’s hospital. At his 40th wedding anniversary he told me that the greatest moment during his marriage was when he received a letter from Pauline whilst imprisoned in Singapore, and so felt connected to the outside world.

On leaving Singapore in 1945, Bill was examined by medical staff at one of the breaks in the journey when he was told he had a mass in his abdomen that was most likely a tumour. Bill gave a huge laugh as he explained he had just eaten a loaf and a half of bread! Back at St Mary’s Hospital Bill served as Alexander Fleming’s Clinical Assistant. He had several heated discussions with Fleming about the emergence of allergy to Penicillin, particularly as early preparations were not entirely pure.

Bill ran the Allergy clinic at St Mary’s that still bears his name. His interest in allergy had been fostered by John Freeman who, with Leonard Noon, started vaccinating patients for hay fever. Together with Rosa Augustin, Bill went on to conduct the first double-blind placebo-controlled study of grass pollen immunotherapy, in 1954. After a distinguished career at St Mary’s, Bill retired only to be recruited to Maurice Lessof’s allergy clinic at Guy’s Hospital which was when I first met him. We collaborated on a study of castor bean allergy in Port Sudan and a follow up study with Raphael Panzani in Marseilles which showed that exposure to castor bean dust sensitized both those with and without a genetic predisposition to allergy, uncovering one of the important immune mechanisms that protect against allergy.

Bill continued working at Guy’s for a further 20 years and in his private allergy clinic. Then began a third career as an expert witness. However, Bill’s strict adherence to evidence-based medicine meant he sometimes added weight to the opposing counsel. A compromise was reached where he was hired by both sides.

As well as Bill’s medical work in the UK he also was called upon by other countries. This is how he ended up treating Saddam Hussein. In common with Maurice Lessof, Bill was acutely aware of the harm caused by cigarette smoking and told Hussein that there was little point helping him medically if he didn’t quit smoking.

In 2005 Bill visited Singapore as a guest of the nascent Immunology Programme at the National University of Singapore. Despite flying business class, he arrived with the smallest suitcase I have seen for a week-long stay. I had the honour of taking him to several remembrance events celebrating the departure of the Japanese from Singapore. During this trip Bill explained that a spy had sold secrets to the Japanese about the British defences, which assumed an attack from the Indonesian (not the Malaysian) side of the country. There are too many stories about Bill to mention them all here but an excellent biography by Paul Watkins was published in 2018. Also, you can listen to a podcast of Desert Island Discs from 8 of August 2015.

One could say that Bill was lucky. Surviving the war, dodging several bullets including a ruptured gall bladder on his return from Singapore in 2005. But I think it was above all his positive outlook on life, his faith and his enduring thirst for knowledge about human disease that enabled him to live such an extraordinary life. All of us who knew him were the richer for it.

Mike Kemeny
Professor of Immunology and Microbiology, National University of Singapore

Listen to the podcast of Desert Island Discs about Dr Bill Frankland’s life here.