Dr. Ian Fraser, 98, Wartime Pioneer of Penicillin Use



By Wolfgang Saxon, , May 16, 1999

Sir Ian Fraser, a British surgeon whose medical team took penicillin to the wounded on the battlefields of World War II and established that it effectively checked their blood infections, died May 11. He was 98 and lived in Belfast.

Fraser was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps in West Africa in 1941 when it sent him to Algiers to direct tests of what was then a new and largely untested drug, penicillin. Early results were disappointing. But working in a large hospital with patients suffering from septicemia, he became convinced that it could be effective if administered early -- before the disorder advanced and became a killer.

He insisted on a chance to test the new drug on the front lines, to be applied directly as casualties came in. With special dispensation from the War Office in London he received advance notice of military operations so he could be there to treat the wounded on the spot. Thus, he played a role in the early successes, which eventually saved untold lives.

A colonel, and eventually brigadier, Fraser left North Africa aboard a hospital ship to care for the wounded from the beaches of Sicily. Operating surrounded by bombardments and heavy shelling, he earned a Distinguished Service Order and went on with the troops to the beachhead at Salerno, the invasion of France and the Indian campaign.

The son of a general practitioner, he was born in Belfast and was educated there at the Royal Academical Institution and Queen's University, graduating in medicine and surgery. He trained under doctors who knew the horrors of the trenches and battlefields of France, and much later he described their make-do techniques in his autobiography, "Blood, Sweat and Cheers" (1989).

He received a surgical appointment at Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, but he volunteered for service as soon as war broke out in Europe once again in 1939. In 1946 he resumed his career as a surgeon and teacher in Belfast.

He retired in 1966 as the senior surgeon at Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. In the 1970s he served as founding chairman of the Police Authority in Northern Ireland and, from then until 1992, he remained a founding member of the Ulster Defense Regiment Advisory Council -- positions that made him a potential target of terrorism in the province.

The Irish Republican Army bombed a house close to his in March 1976, and the assumption was at the time that he was the real target because of his association with the Ulster forces. Army demolition experts defused another large bomb near his home toward the end of that year.

He lectured throughout Britain and in the United States. Among his many awards were the French Legion of Honor and decorations from Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands.

Fraser's wife, Eleanor Mitchell Fraser, died in 1992. His survivors include a son and a daughter.


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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov