Lives of the fellows

Frank John Fenner

b.21 December 1914 d.22 November 2010
CMG MB BS Adelaide(1938) MD(1942) Hon MD Monash DTM Sydney(1940) FRACP(1959) FAA FRS FRCP(1967)

Frank was one of Australia's greatest microbiologists and virologists, and he made an extraordinary contribution to science and to humanity.

Frank’s principal research work was concerned with poxviruses: mousepox, myxomatosis, vaccinia genetics and smallpox. Among his most notable achievements was his work in overseeing the abolition of smallpox, and the management of Australia’s rabbit plague through the development and introduction of the myxoma virus. He along with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.68] and Dr (later Sir Ian) Clunies Ross (Chief of CSIRO) famously injected themselves with the virus to prove to the Australian public that it was safe for humans.

Frank was born in Ballarat in December 1914. He attended the Rose Park Primary School in South Australia followed by the Thebarton Technical School, and completed his tertiary studies in science and medicine at the University of Adelaide. He graduated in medicine in 1938 and then completed a Diploma of Tropical Medicine. This proved to be an important decision, as he went on to become a Captain then Major in the Australian Army Medical Corps between 1940 and 1946, serving in Australia, Palestine, Egypt, New Guinea and Borneo. During this time he worked tirelessly to combat malaria in Papua New Guinea, and was made a Member of The Order of the British Empire for his efforts in 1945.

In 1946, Frank began working with Macfarlane Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research using mousepox in the laboratory to study the smallpox virus.

In 1948, he was awarded an overseas Fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in New York after which he was appointed the foundation Professor of Microbiology in the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in 1949, and later Director of the school in 1967. During this time, he also chaired the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication, and was able to announce the eradication of the disease to the World Health Assembly, one of the greatest achievements of the World Health Organization.

Over the course of his career, Professor Fenner received numerous awards, including the Britannica Australia Award for Medicine (1967), the Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science Medal (1980), the World Health Organization Medal (1988), the Japan Prize (1988), the Senior Australian Achiever of the Year (1999), and the Prime Minister’s Science Prize (2002). He held honorary doctorates from Monash, Liege, Oxford, Brookes and the Australian National Universities and was awarded the Albert Einstein World Award for Science 2000. He was also elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1954), Fellow of the Royal Society (1958), and Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences (1977).

Frank showed a keen interest In the environment and long supported Australia becoming more of an ecologically and socially sustainable population. His awareness in this field led to him being appointed the Director of the Centre for Resources and Environmental Studies at the ANU between 1973 and 1979. He was a Life Member of the Australian Conservation Foundation and was Vice-President from 1971 to 1973. He was a member of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment from 1971 to 1976 and Editor-in-Chief, SCOPE publications, 1976-1980. From 1978 to 1982 he was a member of the Senior Scientific Advisory Board for the UN Environment Program Project ‘The state of the environment ten years after Stockholm’.

During his long career, Frank published more than 300 scientific papers and authored or contributed to more than 20 books.

Frank was active in Australian Society of Microbiology affairs until the very end and of course he was one of those instrumental in founding the Society. He was the Society’s fourth President (1964-1965) and fourth Rubbo Orator (1973). He regularly attended national meetings until 2008 and it was only declining health that prevented him being in Perth in 2009 for the Golden Jubilee. He was always instantly recognizable in his distinctive red cardigan, leaving many of us wondering if indeed, he did not have an endless supply of them.

Frank is remembered for his dedication and incredible contribution to science and for his significant work in reducing human suffering.

H Stokes
D Anderson

[Reproduced, with permission, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ College Roll]

(Volume XII, page web)

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