'Mr. Pollen,' after keeping count for decades, to retire


Any day now, when the first hard frost puts the ragweed to sleep for another year, Frank Ward will pack up his microscope and call it quits.

The man known as Mr. Pollen has risen before dawn for almost 30 years during the seven-month hay fever season to measure Baltimore's pollen counts, as faithful to his job as any dairy farmer.

Now, at 65, a bit stiff in the joints and wearing his fourth set of bifocals, he may finally know the luxury of staying in bed in the morning and vacationing whenever he wants.

"I never took a vacation during the season, and I can count the number of days I was sick on one hand and not use all the fingers," said Mr. Ward, the father of three grown sons. "But it's like anything else: You get tired of it sometimes."

Thanks to his dedicated efforts since 1963, Baltimore has one of the longest continuous records of daily pollen counts in the nation, an invaluable history of the ebb and flow of airborne pollen that underlies important allergy research conducted at the Johns Hopkins University.

"You could refer to him as one of the pioneers," said Dr. Jean A. Chapman, a Missouri allergist and official of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, who has known Mr. Ward for 20 years. "When he started, it was more of an art than the science it is now."

It still seems more an art than a mundane laboratory exercise, a gentle, earthy sort of calling that finds Mr. Pollen with his finger on Mother Nature's pulse as the seasons unfold and the multitudes sneeze and cough to the tune of his daily numbers.

Seven days a week from late February to mid-October, he drives in the 5 a.m. darkness from his Linthicum home to retrieve a set of sticky microscope slides that have been spinning in the air for a day atop a 15-foot tower near Key Medical Center on Eastern Avenue.

Why so early? "When I started doing this, I called radio stations with the counts, and they wanted it by 7 a.m.," he explained. "Otherwise, I guess you could do it any time, but I didn't mind."

The small sampling machine, known as a roto-slide, was a major advance back in the early 1960s when Mr. Ward, a Navy veteran from Baltimore with a master's degree in science from Hopkins, was hired by Johns Hopkins Hospital as a technician at its allergy clinic.

"They were using a gravity method, just putting a greased slide outside and waiting for pollen to drop on it," he said. "That missed the finer grains. With the slide spinning, it's more representative of what's actually in the air."

When the clinic moved to Good Samaritan Hospital in the late 1970s, so did his custom-built machine, and it was placed at its present hilltop vantage point in 1988 when the university's Asthma and Allergy Center relocated across town to the East Baltimore site.

But collecting representative pollen samples is only the beginning, sort of the musical score awaiting the performance -- the painstaking counting of each grain of pollen under a microscope in the center's Dermatology, Allergy and Clinical Immunology reference laboratory.

There, perched on a stool while most of his colleagues are still in bed, Mr. Ward peers through his microscope at tiny fuzzballs that could be dust, mites, factory pollutants or one of hundreds of kinds of fungi, molds and pollens from trees, grasses, shrubs and weeds.

"He's excellent at that discrimination," said Dr. Robert G. Hamilton, director of the reference lab. "There's quite a skill in doing it, not just knowing the species of pollens and molds, but recognizing them if they're positioned at angles to the eye."

And Mr. Ward has just the background for remembering the cumbersome Latin names of the pollens, such as Ambrosia artemisiifolia (common ragweed). A devout Roman Catholic, he spent three years in the seminary as a young man before deciding it "just wasn't for me."

The counting "takes time and patience," he said, although he's almost always out the door by 9 a.m. During oak pollen season, the slide may bejammed with more than 30,000 grains per square centimeter. "That's about the limit I can count."

Mr. Ward is the first to know when tree pollen season starts in early spring in Maryland. He follows the annual progression through grass pollen and the short lull in July before ragweed comes on in August, peaks around Labor Day and tapers off toward mid-October.

He's the one who noticed the apparently permanent drop in ragweed counts following tropical storm Agnes in 1972, and the negative effect of rampant development along Interstate 83 and Ritchie Highway on "good" ragweed crops.

"Prior to Agnes, I'd get counts of 3,000 to 5,000 or better, but this year the highest was around 1,700," he said with just a trace of wistfulness. "I don't look for it ever to build up again."

Starting next spring, the numbers will change more, as Dr. Hamilton and his staff take the counts with a new, more sophisticated sampling machine using a system of units -- grains per cubic meter -- required for certification by the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology.

"I guess you'd say Frank is part of the old way of doing things, and that doesn't in any way diminish what he's been doing all these years," said Dr. Chapman, who added that Mr. Ward was the only member of an academy committee overseeing the field without a master's degree or a doctorate.

Although Mr. Ward retired from Hopkins two years ago, it wasn't really a retirement. He has been making the early-morning pollen counts as a part-time employee ever since.

And he will serve in the future as a consultant to the reference lab. Dr. Hamilton said part of the facility would soon be dedicated as the Francis P. Ward Sr. Pollen Identification Laboratory.

Meantime, Mr. Ward -- who doesn't have hay fever -- is waiting patiently for the first killer frost of his last ragweed season.

"Whenever the season ends, I'm done," he said. "You know, I've been getting up early ever since I was 12. I think it's time for a change."

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