Tribute to Frank Sullivan – 1931-2021
Frank Sullivan passed away peacefully in his sleep on 15 April 2021. Frank was a larger than life character with a very detailed and impressive understanding of teratology and reproductive toxicology, and was widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the world. He also was a great storyteller, full of anecdotes and jokes and had a really fantastic sense of humour which could, on occasion, get us into trouble.
He was a long-standing member of the BTS and past Executive Committee Member, Honorary Fellow and a Paton Prize Awardee. Among his other memberships (not a complete list), he was a founder member, prize-winner, past-President and Honorary Member of the European Teratology Society and an Honorary Member and past-President of the European Network of Teratology Information Services (ENTIS), as well as Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and member and a past president of Developmental Pathology Society
Born in Scotland he graduated from Edinburgh University in 1955 after first studying chemistry, then pharmacology. He joined the Pharmacology department at Guy’s Hospital Medical School in London as a research student working initially on tuberculosis, from which his older brother had died in the 1940s and which Frank survived in the 1950s, thanks to the discovery of streptomycin. He remained at Guy’s for the rest of his university career (40 years) in teaching and research. Many of us remember him lecturing on reproductive toxicology on our various degree courses at other institutions. At Guy’s he seemingly was an endless fountain of knowledge, possibly attributed to his analytical tidy mind but like most of us his office was apparently piled high with paper and was described by one of his colleagues (Bryan Robinson) ‘as an archaeological dig rather than a filing system’.
Frank’s career and research as an early teratologist was influenced by the thalidomide tragedy in the 1960s. Long before the term endocrine disruption was coined, he was investigating the influence of hormonal disturbances on pregnancy outcomes. He then turned to studying the influence of chemicals on pregnancy and development, including a series of studies on the mechanism of action of 5-HT as a teratogen. In the 1970’s Frank played a key advisory role in developing the requirement for postnatal screening of new drugs for auditory, visual and behavioural changes in the UK guidelines for testing of medicines. He had pursued the idea of postnatal testing to detect chemically-induced developmental disturbances of the brain that might only be revealed after birth by subtle changes in motor development and behaviour, which had been suggested by US researchers in the 1940s and 60s but initially rejected by the teratology community.
The professional achievement that Frank was most proud of was the establishment of the Teratology Information Service (UKTIS), which he initiated using his income from consulting to set up a telephone service for doctors and other health professionals seeking information on potential risks to their pregnant patients from exposure to drugs or other chemicals, whilst at Guy’s. On his retirement from Guy’s in 1995, funding of the UKTIS was taken over by the National Health Service and later, Public Health England and moved to Newcastle, where it continues today as a fitting legacy of his work.
Frank’s interest in the potential for industrial chemicals to cause reproductive problems continued until the end (he was still actively engaged with colleagues in the week that he died). The widely cited book Reproductive Hazards of Industrial Chemicals, published in 1982, written with his collaborator Sue Barlow, influenced the first list of reproductive toxicants drawn up under California EPA Prop 65 legislation.
Frank served on several UK Government Committees as a reproductive toxicity expert covering pesticides, and chemicals in food, consumer products and the environment. He was an advisor on reproductive toxicology to IARC carcinogen panels for 15 years and also advised the WHO (particularly on drug treatment of malaria during pregnancy). Frank was the UK Specialised Expert in Reproductive Toxicology to the EU and had chaired the working party that developed the original EU classification system for toxicity to reproduction of industrial chemicals. When the UN Global Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) was under discussion (at OECD) he argued tirelessly to bring some sense to it, such as not classifying for secondary effects – a meeting in Berlin comes to mind with hours of discussion/arguments. Later, when the EU introduced the UN GHS system into their guidelines, he argued again about the dangers of using hazard classification for reproductive toxicity of chemicals, without any application of risk assessment to take account of exposure. This issue was something that he felt very strongly about.
His consultancy work was diverse across the chemical industry, with too many projects to mention, but always where there has been a reproductive toxicity issue, usually tied up with regulatory issues! One notable area was his work with the borate industry for 16 years, travelling back and forth to California and Washington DC and putting the scientific case for risk assessment rather than just hazard classification with the regulators. His sense of humour landed us restaurant bills on more than one occasion, having to pay the next table off due to the nature of our reproductive toxicology discussions and jokes. Then he worked with the molybdenum industry for the last 10 years. Again, he argued against the use of hazard identification based on ridiculously high doses when real-world exposure was low. Frank always asked the tough or contentious questions (based on his very wide knowledge that none of us could compete with) making us think ‘out of the box’ a lot of the time. His questions were always preceded with a sentence that started out: “It’s a pity that …”. Another saying that I will miss hearing from Frank is ‘Wait a minute….’ when someone went off on a tangent on an issue”!
Speaking to people who knew him, he is fondly remembered – some of the comments include:
‘Very knowledgeable, very fun to talk to.’
‘It was such a privilege and honour to be part of the science/regulatory team at Borax, with the esteemed likes of Frank.’
‘He was so unassuming about his contribution to teratology research and especially about his role in setting up the Teratology Information Service.’
‘The field of toxicology in general and teratology in particular has lost a very special person.’
‘He was renowned for the ready sharing of his knowledge, his astute but gentle questioning of others’ research results, and his great sense of humour, which was much evidence whether in conversation or scientific discussion.’
One colleague who watched Frank’s funeral from California said ‘I can just picture Frank saying, “Anyone with any decency would have gone by now.” I also had to smile when a couple of speakers mentioned that Frank was always the one with the courage to ask the difficult questions. There is no question that we will sorely miss Frank’.
Having known Frank all my career I will miss his knowledge, humour, many of his sayings, his support in contentious issues, his absolute belief in his views and more than that, his friendship.
My thanks go to Sue Barlow, Bryan Robinson and John and Sheila Tesh for allowing me to plagiarise parts of their tributes!
He is survived by his daughter Carole, two granddaughters and his long-time partner Sue Barlow.
Dr Sue Hubbard, FBTS
Links to other tributes and information
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.
BDR Connection (Birth Defects Research and Prevention): Blogs : Memories of Frank Sullivan, BSc, PhD, FBTS, 1931 -2021 (birthdefectsresearch.org).
Reproductive Toxicology. Obituary: Frank Sullivan. Available online 11 June 2021.