Remembering Frank Fenner

Remembering Frank Fenner

Phil Hodgkin
ASI Newsletter, March 2011

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.