Ian Frazer: The Man Who Saved a Million Lives

Ian Frazer: The Man Who Saved a Million Lives

by Madonna King

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An unforgettable story of perseverance and aspiration, this biography of Dr. Ian Frazer, the man whose vaccine for cervical cancer has helped save the lives of more than 275,000 women around the world each year, peels back the many layers of his extraordinary life. Given exclusive access to Frazer, biographer and journalist Madonna King tells of his ongoing struggle for funding cancer research, the herculean international legal battle waged to win the patent, the devastating loss of his friend and co researcher, Dr. Jian Zhou, and Frazer’s ongoing commitment to have the vaccine made available in the developing world. This chronicle provides fascinating insight into the life of the Scottish-born Australian of the Year who is behind one of the great medical discoveries of the century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702251849
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 08/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 17 MB
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About the Author

Madonna King is an award-winning journalist and commentator with more than 25 years of experience working in Brisbane, Sydney, the Canberra press gallery, and the United States. She is a weekly columnist for Brisbane’s Courier-Mail and is the author of Catalyst and One-Way Ticket.

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Ian Frazer

The man who saved a million lives

By Madonna King

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2013 Madonna King
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-5185-6


Marion Frazer first remembers the piercing blue eyes. Her son, Ian Hector Frazer, had only just been born and placed in a crib by her side. She looked at him, and he stared back with eyes a shade of blue she had never seen before. It was Tuesday 6 January 1953, and she and her husband, Sam, wondered what life would hold for their firstborn.

Their union had been a whirlwind romance. Sam had a medical degree, was studying biochemistry and held a position as a junior lecturer at Glasgow University when he offered fellow lecturer and science graduate Marion Shepherd a lift to work. The city of Glasgow, which had been an engine room for industry at the close of the Second World War, now found itself facing decline as the economies of Europe revived. Smog clung to the city's buildings, stripping colour from the sky. Over a cup of coffee, Sam Frazer and Marion Shepherd talked, fell in love, and married nine months later in St Andrew's Chapel. Eleven months later, on a near-freezing winter's day, Ian arrived.

It wasn't long before independence characterised his young personality. Before he could crawl, Marion remembers him rolling over and over to reach for what he wanted. He was determined, persistent, and never screamed for assistance. But he almost always got his own way, and by the time his sister, Lesley, was born in November the following year, that spark of independence really shone. Even when he could talk, Ian preferred to work things out by himself, shunning help from those years older, and that's what his playmates first noticed when the family followed Sam from Glasgow to a senior lecturership at The University of Edinburgh.

The young family stayed in rented accommodation in Edinburgh first, before moving to Braid Hills in the city's south-west. Two more children arrived in quick succession: Neil in January 1956, and Ewan in November 1958, and a nanny joined them too, to help Marion with their four young children.

Young Gerrard Clark lived next door. A big vacant lot lay between 12 and 16 Braid Mount, but a house was soon built on it, and, when the new family moved in, he clambered over the fence to meet them. The house was big, with a bedroom for each child. At number 16 Braid Mount, Keith Maclennan also watched, hoping the tall young boy called Ian would become his new friend too.

It wasn't long before the three boys – Ian, Gerrard and Keith – became pals. The Braid Hills area overflowed with families, and almost all the children attended the local Merchant Company school, George Watson's College. They were part of a community that laid the groundwork for a fun-filled childhood, often overseen by the Frazer family's nanny. The Frazers' garden was an adventure wonderland for Ian, his siblings and their friends. A swing and sandpit took centre stage, and Keith and Gerrard both remember the day Sam Frazer arrived home carrying a big, inflatable pool. The Frazers were early adopters of anything new and the first in the neighbourhood also to buy a fridge. The children would line up to receive the ice lollies handed out by Marion. Braid Hills, which was one of the city's summits and offered wonderful views across Edinburgh, could be cold, windy, and sometimes miserable, but the children were oblivious to the temperature, playing in the pool in all weather, whiling away the hours, and eating frozen juice cubes.

Sam worked hard but allowed himself hobbies too, and on non-work days he would feed his passion for cars (the chassis of an Alvis lay in the backyard).

Ian always seemed older than his years. He spoke in phrases that Keith and Gerrard didn't always understand, which on some occasions amused their parents. He was like an adult in some ways; he could be fun, but also serious and determined. Once he started something, whether it was playing the recorder or collecting stamps, he would stick at it in a way many other children could not. Keith discovered this about his friend one day when the two of them had a chat about the big brick wall that stood between their two gardens. The wall had been built in 1952 by Keith's father, and Ian wondered whether it would be possible to make a hole through it using nothing more than metal spoons. Eight hours later, and with a focus beyond their years, they could make out life on the other side of the fence. Eureka! The two eight-year-olds were able to spy on each other through a tiny hole that would remain in the wall for forty years. They had successfully built their own surveillance device. It was an early pointer to a determination that would colour Ian's life and work. In retrospect, it was also a small window into how the need to build would influence him. Whether it was in a sandpit as a toddler, a train set in primary school, a computer software program or kitchen recipe when he was a bit older, he saw success in making a complete whole from many parts, in making a spy hole from a few scratches in a brick wall.

Marion and Sam don't remember Ian's first school day. Like everything else, it was dealt with as matter-of-fact. Ian got up, got dressed and went off without a fuss. Homework happened the same way and Ian quickly excelled, jumping an infant class at George Watson's College. At home, his parents were stern and sometimes even formal. The young clan was required to adhere to strict bedtimes, not fidget at the meal table, speak in a controlled manner, and always display good manners. Their father was a busy man, with big decisions on his plate, and he encouraged the independence Ian showed as an infant. In some ways their father's attitude made the children try harder; they wanted his positive feedback. Sam collected stamps at international conferences to add to Ian's collection and passed on his passion for science as well, luring his eldest to the lab to take blood from him (and diagnosing a condition that had put Ian in bed for a couple of weeks), and leaving science magazines around the family home.

Kirsten, one of the family's nannies, helped grow the fascination all the children showed in science too. As well as taking the youngsters to nearby Braidburn park, so they could clamber around the open-air theatre pretending they were on stage, she also painstakingly made maps of the solar system, and stuck them on their walls. Ian loved it. His interest in science only increased when Sam was appointed professor of chemical pathology at Aberdeen University and the family moved again, firstly to a small rented house nestled between the greengrocer and the local hardware store, and then to a grand old home called Murdan, eight kilometres from the town centre. Sitting well back from Dalmuinzie Road, the huge Victorian home boasted twenty-six rooms and huge gardens. Each of the Frazer children was allowed to choose the colour of the wallpaper for their bedroom. Bought for a song because it was considered at the time to be unfashionably far from town, Murdan would be home to Ian and his siblings through their adolescence.

The broader world the Frazer children were growing into was opening up like a flower too. The Beatles broke into the American music scene with more than seventy million viewers tuning in to a television appearance in 1964, and their hit 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' opened the way for a string of other British artists – from The Rolling Stones to Petula Clark – to dominate the American charts. Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali while making boxing popular, the bikini hit the fashion pages and First Lady Jackie Kennedy introduced the world to the pillbox hat. Things weren't as bright in Scotland, which had relied strongly on heavy industry to bolster the economy and was now trying to find something new for its working class. In university circles, academics tried to separate Scotland from Britain in the eyes of the Scottish, but it didn't wash. Unemployment figures rose and infrastructure growth fell. Aberdeen was faring better than other areas, but none of this social upheaval was too obvious in the Frazer household.

It was during their adolescence in Aberdeen that the personalities of the Frazer children started to shine. To both parents, Ian was slightly harder to decipher than Neil, their middle boy, who was softer but the most gregarious – and probably the cheekiest – of their children. Neil gave his parents more trouble than the others too: one night they found the sleepwalker perched at the top of a big open Victorian window. Ewan, their youngest, was obsessed with electronics and managed to make his bedroom door and curtains open by remote control. The young boy's love of technology was fed by his father, whose homemade creations ranged from motorised Daleks, to saws, drills, and skis. In fact, Sam Frazer loved rebuilding cars so much that he bought an old Rolls-Royce just after the Second World War, stripped it down to a pile of scrap metal, and then rebuilt it before travelling around the country to meet other Rolls-Royce enthusiasts.

Much later, Ian would rely on his father's help to build a car from two old vehicles: the first, an Austin A30 bought for thirty quid, was in such poor condition, rusted through, that you could see the ground through the floor. Ian drove it for three years while at university but during that time he and his father put two cars together, managing to weld a new engine into the A30's old engine space. Ian's memory of the project is vivid, and he still bears the scar from dropping the engine on his thumb. That was during the Christmas holidays in his second year of university, but Ian's passion for building would later see him build a computer, write software, and publish a program to make money. Further down the track, with three small children, he would add a room and a deck to their home, and at work he would spend years planning to build the biggest science facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

Ian's interest in mechanics was obvious early. As Ewan's life revolved around electronics, Ian would pull things apart and put them back together. All three boys loved their father's train set, which had been housed in the dining room of their Edinburgh house. It would fold down from the wall onto the table. Together they would make tunnels and watch the train whiz through them, over and over again. The boys were only allowed to play with it when Sam was home and they would look forward to seeing their father reach for it.

Ian also shared some of Neil's broader interests. He rode his bicycle for hours at a time, created plastic figurines, and loved music. He was a good child, quiet and serious, who would help his mother with his younger siblings, but as he travelled from infancy through early primary school and into high school, the adjective consistently used to describe him was 'independent'. He relished his own company and from the age of five showed enormous self-confidence. While he didn't boast a lot of friends, he didn't mind, and, while he welcomed praise from his father, he rarely looked to peers to feed his self-approval. It was another character trait, set early.

Ian's sister, Lesley, was a lovely mix of all three of her brothers' personalities. She wore a furrowed brow often, as though she had the weight of the world on her shoulders, but she was feminine too. She fitted in with her brothers: her passion for electronics and science was also obvious from a young age. But her early death, at the age of just ten, tore a hole in the family, stealing the certainty that had marked the children's lives thus far, and creating a void that neither her parents nor her siblings found easy to talk about.

Lesley lost her life in March 1965, on a busy road near the family home. The day had started like any other, with buses ferrying children and parents on the journey in and out of town. Lesley was crossing a two-lane highway, watching the racing traffic, and choosing her moment to get from one side to the other. But it didn't work out. A bus was travelling in one direction and a car in another. Lesley was hit, and died. And so did a part of Sam and Marion. They had been gifted with an easy love, a smooth marriage, and four well-behaved and intelligent children. They lived in a grand old house, had a solid family income, and life had been both good and predictable.

With their daughter's death, all that changed in an instant. Sam and Marion's grief was unimaginable, and they struggled to talk about it, to each other and to their children. For weeks, it seemed to the young boys, the evening meal was eaten in silence as their parents struggled to deal with the loss of their only daughter. Ian, Neil, and Ewan didn't know what to think, and seeing how difficult it was for their parents, they weren't sure where they could turn. Sam and Marion decided the children were too young to attend their sister's funeral, and tears rarely flowed. Eventually Marion told the boys that Lesley would not be returning. It was a short conversation, their mother stating the obvious, but they needed to hear it. Each of the brothers was left to deal with it in his own way – in their bedrooms, in the silence of the Aberdeen nights.

Each day the boys would venture past Lesley's vacant bedroom, a reminder of life gone. Neil remembers his stomach churning the day it was suggested that he move into her room. It was filled with the memory of Lesley and her things were still in place. He hated the idea, but he did it, and it was that move that helped the family to heal. It made it easier for the boys to adjust. Life went on, and, while Lesley's death was always present for her parents, it was rarely talked about. Years later, Neil's wife, Sharon, would only learn about his lost sister after being married for two years. And while Ian's wife, Caroline, was told of the death by others, she only heard it from her husband when he was required, on a visa application, to nominate all siblings, dead or alive.

It was the first time Ian had lost anyone close to him. The predictability of his young life had been stolen in a traffic accident and although he didn't know it then, it would happen to him again, down the track.


It was in the Scottish highlands around Aberdeen that Ian earned his first weekly pay packet, totalling seven quid. On the brink of turning fourteen, he took pride in needing his own national insurance number to join the driven grouse beaters walking the hillsides, waving flags, and sounding horns as shooters, often from England's upper class, tried their luck tagging dinner. The grouse bird is similar to the partridge and served traditionally during the hunting season, which starts in August each year. Grouse beaters herd the birds across heather moors, encouraging them to fly in a direction that allows hunters to target them. Ian loved the job: it was his first real exercise in independence, away from the family home. He welcomed the solitude that came with distance and looked forward to the long hillside walks, a passion that he would feed time and again, later in life. He even loved the risk that came with grouse beating, which meant that if the hunter missed the bird, and got the grouse beater, they were immediately required to hand over a penalty of five quid. Ian was only hit once with a pellet from a 12-bore shotgun, but the shooters never quibbled; some of them were just awful shots, others had indulged in too many drinks. Ian learnt to love cooking during the hunting seasons, camping out and making hot porridge early each morning. But he also learnt quickly to chat up the New Zealand girls who ran the lodge for the shooters, in the hope they would provide him with the leftover dinners.

At school, the young teenager continued to be drawn into the world of science, and astronomy was his subject of choice, perhaps driven by the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States or by his father's subscription to New Scientist magazine. The world around him was changing in so many ways, and science was playing a greater role in world affairs.

He was only a youngster, but Ian couldn't ignore talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis, when, for thirteen tense days in October 1962 the Soviet Union and Cuba clashed with the United States. The shipyards of Aberdeen had been bombed during the Second World War, and local talk during the Cuban nuclear crisis centred around fallout and the impact of a bomb potentially hitting Aberdeen. Like many of his peers, he was scared but intrigued, and it further fed his science diet, particularly physics and chemistry. He started learning Russian too, loved English, and pleaded with his parents to study music. They refused that request, preferring that he focus on the more academic subjects; their decision would later influence Ian to encourage his own children to include music in their interests.


Excerpted from Ian Frazer by Madonna King. Copyright © 2013 Madonna King. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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