Q&A: Dr Bill Frankland

Q&A - 9TH AUGUST 2017

Dr William Frankland on an extraordinary lifetime in medicine

Dr William Frankland has lived an extraordinary life. He has survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Singapore, suffered from self-induced anaphylaxis brought on while studying insect bites, and worked alongside some of the most famous—and infamous—characters of the 20th century, from former colleague Alexander Fleming to former patient Saddam Hussein. His work in the field of allergies has earned him reverence as the ‘grandfather of allergy’ and, in 2015, an MBE. At 105 years old, he’s still reading and writing papers, and giving guest lectures.

How long have you lived in Marylebone?
About 50 years, but I’ve got a son who has recently retired in Totnes, Devon, where I enjoy visiting. I’m a north country man, I was brought up in Cumberland, and I still love the hills and the lakes.

Are you still working?
I’m very proud, I have written four papers since the age of 100—two entirely myself, the others ‘et al’. I’m very pleased about that. And I still give lectures. I normally give a lecture at St Mary’s Hospital once a year. When I was 100, I said, “I think I can stop now” and they said no. Already I have an invitation for October—I’m 105! I gave a talk at the Royal College of Surgeons in April 2014, and they presented me with the red tie of the Royal College of Surgeons. I wore it to church three days later.

Do you keep up to date with modern medicine?
I try, but it is getting very difficult. Last week was the first time in ages that I was up to date with what I call my extra reading. I have a lot of modern journals sent to me once a month from America.

As I’m getting older I am starting now to do what I call looking backwards. I recently went to the Wellcome Library on Euston Road to look something up and I discovered a book written by a man in 1873, who described his own hay fever and associated asthma—the first scientific description in the world of summer hay fever. But what no one knew was he wrote another book in 1880, and there it was! I found it. I am having a copy of that book made so that I can give it to the British Society of Allergy and Immunology as a present. In that book there are all sorts of interesting little things I’ve discovered.

You’re a life member of the Royal Society of Medicine. Are you much involved with them still?
I used to go a lot. They’ve got the best library in Europe. It’s quite interesting, when I went on the Desert Island Discs, they wanted to name a book that I would take. I said, The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe—and the RSM said, we’ve got it! He was a doctor who travelled all over Europe and a lot of it’s not really very accurate, but it’s a marvellous book. I remember reading it more than 70 years ago. Why they’ve got it in there, I don’t know. And then what did they do? They gave it me!

You’ve had a lot of press attention of late—how are you finding it?
I didn’t want to talk about my horrendous experiences of the war at all when I returned—I wanted to start a new life and forget all that, but seven years ago someone discovered I’d been a FEPOW (Far East prisoner of war) and I was invited for dinner. That was the beginning of all sorts of things. Now they’re writing a book about me—I shouldn’t tell you, but they are. In fact, a lot of my very early life, I’d got it all wrong. My mother didn’t want to have her baby up in the cold north, so I was born near Brighton—a nice, warm southern place. I thought I was only there for a month or so but no, I was there for the first 18 months of my life. The man who is writing this book, when I have a query, he will do his research and travel to find out some more. He’s found out all sorts of things that occurred in my life before Singapore. It has been amazing.

Have you returned to Singapore since the war?
I love Singapore. I wish the people who run our underground would go to Singapore and see how an underground should be run. Everything in Singapore is marvellous. Of course, they are very strict on smoking and you have to have your hair cut—males are not allowed long hair—but it’s very nice. The orchid garden is wonderful.

What’s the secret to a long life?
Something a lot of people ask me is, how is it you’ve lived to 105, what’s the clue? And the answer is, I have been so near death so many times, but I’ve always just missed it. That’s why I’m still alive.