Fenner, Frank

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DTM 1940 MB BS (Adel) MD (Adel) FRS FAA Hon MD (Monash) Hon DSc (ANU, Oxford, Brookes) Dr honoris causa (Univ Liege) FRACP FRCP (Lon)

Frank Fenner was a pioneer of myxomatosis research in Australia and his research into ‘mouse pox’ led to key developments in general understanding of the pathogenesis of viral disease. He played a central part in the global eradication of smallpox, chairing the World Health Organization Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication, and was one of the authors of the key text, ’Medical Virology’.

Frank Fenner was born in Ballarat, Victoria in 1914 and studied at the University of Adelaide, completing his MB BS in 1938 and his MD in 1942. He also received a Diploma of Tropical Medicine from the University of Sydney in 1940. Between 1940 and 1946, he served in the Middle East, Australia and Papua New Guinea as an Officer in the Australian Army Medical Corps, working as a physician, hospital pathologist and malariologist.

After the war, he went to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne to study the virus that causes smallpox in mice. Fenner’s work with ‘mouse pox’ resulted in his formulation of a more general theory of the pathogenesis of viral disease. These early discoveries not only directed his own future research, but were highly influential for the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines.

In 1949, a fellowship took him to the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where he worked on tubercle bacilli. Returning to Australia in 1949, he was appointed Professor of Microbiology at the new John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University.

I wanted to get onto virus work and here was a disease that killed 99 per cent of rabbits and had spread all over the Murray-Darling Basin in a matter of six weeks. I did the lab work and the CSIRO people did the field work.[1]

He began studying the myxoma virus in particular, focusing on the balance between virus virulence and host resistance. Of his early days in myxomatosis research, Fenner says:

We did look at everything. I remember we started off with electron microscope observations of the particle and showed it was a poxvirus. Then I worked on the pathogenesis: the same things I had done with mouse pox, I did with myxomatosis. We worked on mosquito transmission, doing what we call wipe-off experiments, i.e. we had mosquitoes in little tubes, let them probe through a tumour and then saw how many positives of the different strains of virus would be taken along. That gave us the clue to why there was a selection for less virulent strains, because the very virulent one was very well transmitted but the rabbits died in four days; some intermediate ones were just as well transmitted but the rabbits lived for three weeks with infectious lesions. So there was tremendous selective advantage…
Looking back, I see that we published a paper on the pathogenesis, on the classification, on the morphology, on the relationship with other viruses of that group, the poxvirus group, on the immunity – passive immunity, active immunity – almost all aspects of all the things you could look at in the lab. But the most significant work was the study of the changes in virulence, which occurred very early and went on progressively.[1]

Fenner became Director of the John Curtin School from 1967 to 1973. During this time he was also Chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication. In 1973 Frank was appointed to establish the new Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University and was Director until 1979.

Over the years Fenner has been elected to the fellowship of several academies, including 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 has been the recipient of numerous awards, medals and honours throughout his career. These include the Britannica Australia Award for Medicine (1967), the Matthew Flinders and Macfarlane Burnet Medals of the Australian Academy of Science (1967 and 1985), the Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science Medal (1980), the Japan Prize (1988), the Copley Medal of the Royal Society (1995), the Albert Einstein World Award for Science (2000), and the Prime Minister’s Science Prize (2002).

In 1945, Frank was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for work in malaria control, and in 1976, was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for services to medical research. In addition to these honours, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for service to medical science, to public health and to the environment in 1989, and most recently, was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2001 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to microbiology.[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Fenner, Frank. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.