The Boy Roger and the invention of the asthma inhaler

swa_bw_neg_ 005

John Franklin-Robins with Sophie Neville as Titty and Sten Grendon as Roger

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

I have been deliberating upon points where fiction touches reality. The most significant in my own life is the story behind my fictional brother, Roger Walker, one of the lead characters in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The real Boy Roger was responsible for saving me from acute misery. Whilst I was asthmatic as a child, Dr Roger Altounyan was behind the invention of the Intal spin inhaler, which bought me instant relief.

BW Sten in Swallow

About ten years ago I met Dr Bill Frankland, a former POW to the Japanese who became a Harley Street allergist and president of the British Allergy Association, now the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Bill told me that Roger Altounyan had been a good friend ever since they worked together on the Intal project. Roger introduced him to his sister Titty who, as a child had been in the inspiration for the character I played in the film of Swallows & Amazons.

I’d had known that Roger Altounyan had been in the RAF during World War II, but not that he had qualified as a doctor and become an allergist. Bill told me that he used his knowledge of propellers to develop the Intal spin-inhaler and effectively treat asthma.

Dr Bill Frankland

Dr Bill Frankland celebrating his 100th Birthday in 2012 with Sophie Neville

Please click here to listen to his life story on Desert Island Discs

Dr Frankland gave me a set of photos taken at Roger Altounyan’s going-away party in Cumbria when he took his family and friends up Coniston Water on the Gondola. He said that Roger insisted on smoking a pipe even though he was reliant on oxygen and explained that the experimentation was partly responsible for his early death in 1987.

I will explain the connection in further depth.

The well-loved book Swallows and Amazons was written by Arthur Ransome for the children of friends of his after they brought him a pair of red slippers for his forty-fifth birthday in January 1929. He based his main characters, the crew of the Swallow, on these five real Altounyan children who had been staying at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District,

The character Roger Walker, known when he first started sailing as the Boy Roger, was inspired by Roger Altounyan then about six years old. As a consequence he was obliged to live out his school days under Swallow’s flag, as it where. This may have become tedious, although it was much the same for Sten Grendon who played the part of Roger in the 1974 film.

Altounyan Children - Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger
The well-known photograph of the four eldest Altounyan children – Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger (copyright ???)

Roger is seen here with three of his four sisters, and below as a boy along with Arthur Ransome obviously playing tennis (copyright: Brotherton Library, Leeds). The story of his family is told  by Jeremy Collingwood in his recent book,  A Lakeland Saga.

Altounyan family with Ransome

Did we depict Roger Walker accurately in the film? May be not! Richard Pilbrow, the producer of Swallows & Amazons  told me that Mrs Ransome was furious that Claude Whatham had cast a boy with dark hair, but she never explained why. She did not like the photograph she had been sent but it was taken before Sten’s received a short back-and-sides.

swa_bw_neg_ 002Sten Grendon as Roger Walker with Virginia McKenna playing his mother

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

Luckily, when Evgenia Ransome visited the location and actually saw Sten running around at Bank Ground Farm she seemed happy enough and said nothing more. Perhaps Virginia McKenna somehow managed to make everything alright.

Stephen Grendon playing Roger

Sten Gredon playing Roger in 1973

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

What I didn’t know until recently was that Roger Altounyan was an asthmatic himself.

Roger was specifically allergic to guinea pigs and would routinely experiment on himself. He would not have been allowed to do this by today’s regulations, which some say would have held back the testing indefinitely. I gather from reading Rodney Dingle’s biography that the model inhaler that he made with a piece of hose pipe worked well, whilst the prototype made professionally did not. If you use an inhaler you will hear that the propeller has to be able wiggle in order for the medication to be successfully diffused into the patient’s mouth and lungs. The discovery was portrayed by David Suchet in a documentary entitled Hair Soup.

Roger Altounyan’s daughter Barbara has just sent me this link where you can read more about Roger and his family.

Dr Roger Altounyan

Dr Roger Altounyan

I was allergic to feathers, not parrot’s feathers, but old pillows and eider-downs. I may owe my life to Roger and his spin-inhaler. The medication certainly helped me enormously and has always given me the peace of mind that it will give me relief if I do get wheezy.

Further reading: Roger: The Life and Distinguished Achievements of Dr Roger Altounyan, by Rodney Dingle. It is difficult to get hold of but Kirkland Books in Kendal have a copy.

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

21 thoughts on “The Boy Roger and the invention of the asthma inhaler”

  1. This was a superbly brave achievement by Dr. Roger Altounyan, done with true S&A style: modesty. He gave the world a great thing and in so doing he became much loved by Asthma, and other lung problem, sufferers worldwide. The fact that he used himself as a test bed, coming close to death more than once, makes this all the more remarkable. He is celbrated in vegan/vegetarian circles for the way he did his experiments, thereby avoiding any animal cruelty at all.

  2. I should add that the short film ‘Hair Soup’ mentioned here is well worth tracking down if you can find anyone with an old tape from when it was shown on television. David Suchet puts in a fine performance, in fact I would go so far as to say that this performance is the jewel in the crown of his acting career. Once seen, one is left with a true feeling of having known the man. As far as I know it was only shown the once and has never been released on video, tape or disc.
    If they read this, I would urge the current rights owners to make it available on DVD as there will certainly be a large number of Swallows & Amazons fans wanting to buy it. I am sure that many of us would be willing to place pre-orders if that were necessary.

      1. Yes please to Hair Soup, re-released and at a TARS meeting! I’ve always wanted to see it – I think it was Taqui, or perhaps Brigit, who told me that he’d become very close to the Altounyan family and felt it a real honour to be able to portray such a selfless man.

  3. Thanks for this reminder. I too have reason to be grateful for Roger Altounyan’s work. As to the film, it was Roger Walker who was being portrayed, not Roger Altounyan, and in that I think Sten was perfect! TARS Library needs a copy of Rodney Dingle’s book, so if anyone has a spare copy of it, please get in touch! What we do have, however, is ‘The Roger Altounyan Memorial Symposium, published by Bailliere Tindall, London in 1989, 21 years after the introduction of Intal into clinical practice. The symposium was organised ‘to pay tribute to the life and work of Dr. Roger Altounyan who died on the 7th December 1987.’ This can be borrowed by members of TARS. Winifred Wilson, TARS Librarian

      1. Thanks Sophie for this informative and interesting string. The Altounyan family learned to sail in Amazon/Mavis and Roger returned the compliment by teaching my parents to sail in her in 1936.

        During the war my mother received a post card from a friend in Palestine. It had an added greeting from the censor but I’m not sure if the opportunist censor was Dora or Taqui. Can anyone tell me?

  4. I wonder how Mrs Ransome reacted to the portrayal of the Fallen Angels helping Noah (and God) to build the Ark in the recent film, if that was her reaction to Roger being portrayed with dark hair! Does she not realise that films have to often stray far from the original?

    1. She was very particular. Arthur Ransome had not like the 1962 BBC serial of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ and did not want ‘a Disney-fication’ of his books, so in many ways she was carrying out his will. Despite the illustrations in his books, where the Swallows clearly have dark hair, he wanted any child to be able to easily identify with the Walker family. I read somewhere that he wanted a child with fair hair cast as Titty.

  5. Hello. My mother was one of the “human guinea pigs” for Dr. Altounyan when he was testing Intal in Manchester (England) in the early-to-mid 1960s, and I met him once. I must have been 2 or 3 years old and just remember a giant man in a white coat.
    We moved from Manchester in 1969 to the beautiful Lyth Valley in the Lake District (due to a suggestion, maybe from Dr. Altounyan, that the air would be beneficial to my mother’s health) and regularly went on day-trips to nearby Windermere. We also knew of Swallows and Amazons (via the film rather than the book), but it wasn’t until much later that I found out that Roger Altouynan was one of the children J. Arthur Ransome was writing about.

    1. Thank you so much for writing in. Have you been able to get a copy of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’? You can order it from the library. I mention meeting the allergist Dr Bill Frankland – who is still alive aged 107. He worked with Roger and knew Titty. I do sympathise with your mother. Having asthma before Roger’s inhaler was available must have been horrible.

  6. I am another person who owes Dr. Roger Altounyan a big ‘thank you’. I was prescribed intal for my asthma by my new doctor when I moved to a new area. It made such a difference. Before that I was being prescribed such (even then) antiquated treatment as postural drainage using Elixir of Caffeine! My old doctor would not even give me Ridobron in a glass atomiser, something my grandparents had had in the 1950s! So sad that Dr. Altounyan died so young.

      1. No, not yet. I have only just leaned of its existence since reading this blog. I shall be looking into locating it when I get back home. My father-in-law was a medical rep. for Pfizer and I know he met Dr. Altounyan and admired him very much. He would have loved reading this blog, and the one on Bill Frankland.

          1. Yes, I have just watched it. I still have my spinhaler even though I am on other medication these days.

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