Remembering Frank Fenner

Phil Hodgkin
ASI Newsletter, March 2011

Before the start of the scientific program at the 2010 ASI meeting I was asked to deliver a short tribute to our long time colleague and great friend Frank Fenner who passed away the week before the meeting at the age of 95. In paying such a tribute it was difficult to know where to start – his lifetime of contribution to science was simply extraordinary.

Frank Fenner published his first scientific paper in 1934 at age 20, an anthropological study of South Australian aboriginal communities, and continued to publish well into his 80s – an incredible 70 year publication span.

Fenner worked as an army doctor during the Second World War, serving first in Palestine and later in New Guinea. In New Guinea he developed strategies for protecting Australian troops from malaria and achieved such great success that his work was cited as a major factor in the success of the New Guinea campaign and earned him an MBE. As a result, his scientific credentials came to the attention of Macfarlane Burnet who recruited Fenner to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne, after the Second World War.

Fenner and Burnet were a great team. They worked together on many projects including the second edition of the classic book The Production of Antibodies published in 1949. This was probably the first immunology textbook and a call to arms for the new discipline. In a small section of this book, a sentence really, the idea that self-tolerance might be learned in young life was put forward. This idea was picked up by Peter Medawar in England and led to the award of the Nobel prize to Burnet and Medawar in 1960. Fenner, ever humble, took no credit despite being co-author. He was always quick to say he was the researcher hunting down material for the book, but the ideas were Burnet’s.

Professor Frank Fenner AC CMG MBE 2007 by Jude Rae

Professor Frank Fenner AC CMG MBE 2007
by Jude Rae

At WEHI Frank Fenner also worked on mousepox, establishing it as a model for human viral disease. His meticulous descriptions of the emerging spots and movement of infection between organs remain a standard in the education of every viral immunologist. Also considered a scientific classic is Fenner’s later study of the epidemiology of myxomatosis virus introduced to the non-immune Australian rabbit population and leading eventually to the selection of resistant rabbit strains. Fenner described this work as “watching evolution before our eyes”.

But Fenner is perhaps most famous for chairing the WHO global commission for the certification of smallpox eradication. In this capacity Frank had the honour of announcing to the world that smallpox had been eradicated in 1980. Surely one of the greatest ever public health achievements. Afterwards Fenner teamed up with Donald Henderson to write a comprehensive history of the disease – from its murky beginnings in history to its end brought about by vaccination.

In addition to his stellar scientific work, Fenner was a tireless leader and scientific administrator. In the late 1940s Howard Florey invited Fenner to become foundation professor for the new Department of Microbiology within the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) in Canberra. Frank accepted the job and set about designing, building and recruiting a world class department that included at various times famous names such as: John Cairns, Bill Joklik, Stephen Fazekas De St Groth, Cedric Mims, Graham Laver, Joe Sambrook, Rob Webster, Gwen Woodroofe, Stephen Boyden and Kevin Lafferty.

In 1967 Fenner became Director of JCSMR and Gordon Ada was appointed head of Microbiology. Ada built on the strong virology group Fenner had established and appointed a series of immunologists to develop the field of viral immunology. Thus, between Fenner and then Ada, the wheels were set in motion for the Nobel prize winning work of Doherty and Zinkernagel at JCSMR in the early ’70s.

Frank retired from JCSMR in 1973 but did not stop working – founding a new centre at the ANU dedicated to the study of the environment and sustainable use of resources, another lifetime passion.

Fenner finally retired in 1979 and amazingly began a near thirty-year period of further work as emeritus professor and visiting scientist at JCSMR. It was from his little office in JCSMR that a new generation of scientists, including myself, got to know and love this humble man. He would come to work at 7am each morning and work till around 3pm. Each morning he would sit for tea and discuss events with students and postdocs. His mental acuity never wavered with his age and his grace and work ethic were an inspiration. During this time he regularly updated his many popular virology textbooks, wrote histories of JCSMR, of Microbiology, and of the Australian Academy of Sciences as well as his autobiography and biography of his father.

I would like to finish with a personal story to illustrate the generous spirit of Frank Fenner the person, which itself is deservedly legendary.

In 2007 we held celebrations at WEHI for the anniversary of the development of the clonal selection theory and Frank Fenner was one of the first invited. He was 91 at this time and I was nervous about his frailty and ability to travel. I had no need to worry. Frank attended every session and delivered a very memorable talk. At the final celebration dinner I asked him to let me know when he was ready to go back to his hotel. At around 10.30pm I noticed Frank signalling to me. I went over to him and asked if he was ready to go. “Oh no,” said Frank, “I would like to say something”. We hurriedly found a microphone and Frank rose to speak. He showed his dry sense of humour and extraordinary memory by telling numerous funny stories about Burnet and their times together. Most memorable was the story of when Frank and his wife Bobbie arrived in Melbourne in 1950 to begin a period of work at the WEHI. Burnet was days away from heading off to England on sabbatical and asked Frank whether he would mind looking after his house while he was away. “No problem,” said Frank, “that will be very suitable”. “Oh,” Burnet replied, “and you won’t mind looking after the children too.” And so it came about that for many months, Frank and Bobbie Fenner ‘family sat’ for Burnet – looking after the house and the teen aged children. From his obvious enjoyment of this story it was clear that even Frank, the most generous of men, realised this was going above and beyond the call of duty.

It is fair to conclude that going above and beyond any ordinary sense of duty has earned Frank Fenner his place as one of the greatest servants of Australian science.

To quote Gus Nossal: "What a life, what a career, what generosity of spirit - We shall not see his like again!"

Valé Frank.