Memories of Frank Sullivan, BSc, PhD, FBTS, 1931 -2021

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We first met Frank in the early 1960’s, soon after thalidomide had been identified as a human teratogen. Frank was already a recognised pharmacologist  and toxicologist, having lectured, researched and published together with Professor J.M. Robson at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, London. His interest soon became focussed on the newly emerging field of teratology. 

Frank was a founder member of the European Teratology Society in 1971, and it was a source of great pride for him that he had never missed an Annual Meeting until latterly, when difficulties with mobility made travelling long distances difficult. Meetings were enlivened by his presence; he listened attentively to the lectures and presentations and was ready with a question, sometimes playing devil’s advocate in order to provoke discussion!  He was welcoming and encouraging to young presenters, and his own contributions were always of the highest standard. During coffee and lunch breaks, if you wanted to find Frank, you just had to look to where the crowd was and listen for where the laughter was coming from. However, he did not suffer fools gladly. He told us that on one occasion he was asked to write a reference for a PhD student who had not performed to Frank’s high standards, and the reference comprised just five words, “X worked in my laboratory”. 

Frank really enjoyed ETS social evenings and together with Frank Ross and Lorraine Irvine (sadly both no longer with us) they were a Scottish trio that as the evening wore on, would often break out into song, much to the enjoyment of those present.  He always joined wholeheartedly into whatever the local organisers had arranged. We will never forget the Hungarian evening at the 6th Annual Meeting in Szentendre in 1978, when we were treated to the sight of Frank trying to emulate the local experts by drinking wine from the Hungarian equivalent of the Spanish “porron”. The wine went everywhere except in his mouth, but Frank took it all in good part. Whether in a restaurant in the side streets of Lyon, in a small bistro in Arles, or in many other meeting locations, many of us spent very pleasant evenings over a meal with Frank and Sue, often continuing the discussions of the day or just relaxing and enjoying each others company as scientific colleagues and, above all, as friends.

During his time as president of the ETS, Frank worked tirelessly to maintain the  scientific standing of the Society and he always actively contributed at the Annual General Meetings to ensure that the society remained on a firm financial basis.

Frank was also well known and well respected internationally. In 2000, he became a member of the Teratology Society (BDRPS) and in 2010 he attended the 50th Anniversary meeting of the Society in Louisville, where he enjoyed meeting and discussing with old friends and making new contacts. A number of the members of the BDRPS have attended ETS meetings and will have their own memories of time spent in the company of Frank and Sue.

Others may write about Frank’s contributions to the understanding of reproductive hazards of industrial chemicals, pesticides, foods and consumer products, his contribution to international guidelines and may list his numerous publications and the scientific honours that he received.  However, perhaps in his own eyes, Frank’s most valuable contribution to the field of Teratology was the establishment of the Teratology Information Service, which he initiated and initially funded himself whilst at Guy’s Hospital. The service was subsequently moved to the Newcastle Poisons Service and the funding was taken over by the UK Government. It has become an invaluable reference source for medical practitioners and other health care workers, when faced with patients with accidental or deliberate exposure to chemicals or drugs.

We, along with everyone in the ETS and internationally, who had the privilege of knowing and working with Frank, are greatly saddened by his death. We send our condolences and support to Sue (Barlow), his partner and scientific collaborator for more than 35 years. The field of toxicology in general and teratology in particular has lost a very special person.

John and Sheila Tesh

BDRP and ETS Members

A summary of Frank Sullivan's career is also available on the website of the British Toxicology Society when Frank was recognized as a 2019 Honorary Fellow.


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