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Dr. Jack Frankel made impact on polio, cancer research

TREASURE ISLAND — Dr. Jack Frankel, an internationally known microbiologist, virologist and researcher on the front lines of combatting diseases from polio to cancer, was both a thinker and a lover.

Dr. Frankel worked alongside researcher and virologist Jonas Salk and Nobel laureate John Enders in developing the polio vaccine; talked epidemiology over dinner with Fidel Castro; taught at a half-dozen universities; and lectured around the world.

The same man was known to wear Bermuda shorts under his lab coat and ditch his shoes for flip-flops the moment he left the laboratory.

Sometimes, he brought ducks, chickens or even monkeys home as pets.

He relaxed by playing his baby grand piano with virtuoso skill — though he had never taken a lesson and could not read music — or just sitting on the dock behind his Treasure Island home.

Dr. Frankel, who directed the Tampa Branch Laboratory of the state health department from 1980 to 2000, died Jan. 13, the result of a pulmonary illness. He was 86.

"The stereotype of the scientist is a loner. They don't relate well to people and that sort of thing," said Phil Amuso, the current Tampa branch director who succeeded Dr. Frankel, his mentor. "Jack had the ability to relate to people on every level, and yet he was a brilliant scientist."

Dr. Frankel moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1968 from Basking Ridge, N.J. During the decade before that, he directed virus research at CIBA-GEIGY, then a Summit, N.J., pharmaceutical company, taught at Drew University and Hunter College, and served as chief of virus research at a state hospital in Norristown, Pa.

It was in Pennsylvania where he worked on a polio vaccine, said Jill Chapman, his daughter.

"I can remember being young, talking about the polio disease in elementary school," said Chapman, 59. "He would come home and tell me about Jonas Salk and what they were doing."

After moving to Treasure Island, he helped found Life Sciences, a science-based business operation, where he served as deputy director from 1968 to 1976.

In 1972, he began teaching microbiology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. His relationship with the university would last more than 30 years.

There, Dr. Frankel participated in discoveries pertaining to the causes of cancer, including leukemia and lung cancer. In the late 1970s, he led research that found evidence that the herpes virus can act as a trigger that "switches on" a dormant virus, which in turn causes cancer.

That work caught the eye of the National Cancer Institute, which invited Dr. Frankel to Holland to speak at a conference on cancer research, one of countless similar trips.

"He had relationships all over the world," Amuso said. "Japan, China, Thailand. Germany, France, Switzerland. Sweden, Ireland. He was a map maker. He knew everybody."

In the early 1980s, Dr. Frankel patented a test that would reveal predisposition to lung cancer. The test exposed skin samples to a certain virus.

If the virus caused the skin cells to mutate, Amuso said, "That meant you were perhaps predisposed to getting lung cancer."

At the time, Dr. Frankel was a smoker who had quit, but returned to smoking.

"He put himself through the test," Amuso said. "And lo and behold, he saw he had the potential."

With that, Dr. Frankel abruptly quit smoking for good.

The mind that devised those tests also wrote music. A self-taught musician, Dr. Frankel played Gershwin, Glenn Miller or his own songs expertly, friends say.

Amuso recalled a trip to Puerto Rico to scout out a conference site. "We walked into a bar that had a huge piano. Jack flips up the cover on the keyboard and started playing.

"People filled up the tip jar. They thought he worked there. He gets up and walks out the door and just leaves."

Dr. Frankel was born in New York and raised in the Bronx by a single mother. He met his wife, Florence, in 1945, after he had served in the Army in France during World War II.

"He was romantic," his daughter said. "He brought roses to Mom. He wrote poetry."

In retirement, Dr. Frankel cooked breakfast for his wife, serving fresh-squeezed orange juice in juice glasses he kept in the freezer.

He also played the piano at The Fountains retirement community and The Springs nursing home, "even though he was older than most of the seniors there," his daughter said.

Dr. Frankel was hospitalized after collapsing in November. He died a day after being moved from Kindred Hospital to Hospice House Woodside.

In addition to the tributes of hundreds of friends and associates, he is remembered permanently on a building on the USF campus — the Jack W. Frankel, Ph.D., Lung Cancer Awareness Conference Center.

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.