Nossal, Sir Gustav Joseph Victor

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BSc (Med) 1953 MB BS 1954 PhD (Melb), Hon LLD (Mon), Hon LLD (Melb), Hon MD (Mainz), Hon MD (Ncl), Hon MD (Leeds), Hon MD (UWA), Hon DSc (Syd), HonDSc (Qld)), Hon DSc (ANU), HonDSc (UNSW), HonDSc (McMaster), HonDSc (Oxon),FRCP, FRACP, FRACPA, FRACOG (Hon), FRCPath, FRACGP, FRSE, FTSE, FRS

Sir Gustav Nossal was Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. He is a world-renowned science researcher and commentator. His clarification of cell capacity in antibody formation (Burnet’s theory) became the foundation of our contemporary understanding of the immune system. He has been listed as one of 50 Australian who matter to the rest of the world. Currently, he is the Deputy Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, a Professor of Medical Biology, and a key Adviser to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the area of immunology.

Gus was born in Bad Ischl in Austria in 1931, and came to Australia with his family in 1939. He studied Medicine at the University of Sydney, first completing his Bachelor of Medical Science and then graduating from Medicine in 1954. In the Wisdom Interviews with Peter Thompson, he recalls:

I started medical school in 1945, aged not quite 17… In my third year, a group of us so-called clever kids got together and started studying particular subjects very hard and started giving each other seminars. We somehow read our way into the more interesting aspects of biochemistry and physiology and haematology and so forth… I got tremendously interested in reading the literature and finding out the things that people were finding out, not just a dry old textbook but someone actually struggling to understand… But it was a soupçon, it was a taste of the academic life and even though I studiously pursued the rest of my medical course after that year and did two years of residency at Prince Alfred Hospital, I think in my heart of hearts, my deepest heart of hearts, I knew I was hooked by this research business.
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Gus is also indebted to Pat de Burgh, his senior lecturer during his Bachelor of Medical Science for taking him and some of his peers down to Melbourne to meet Macfarlane Burnet (then head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute) and encouraging them to engage in informal lunchtime discussions of “vaccines and viruses and threats to Australian people though epidemics” with Burnet and other established scientists.

Gus’s early research into virus multiplication was published in Nature, which Gus recalls made him “the subject of a lot of teasing afterwards”. Gus completed his residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and remained there until 1956.

He then moved to Melbourne and became a Research Fellow at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, where he has remained for most of his career (with the following exceptions). From 1959 to 1961, he was Assistant Professor of Genetics at Stanford University. In 1968, he spent a year at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and in 1976, was a Special Consultant to the World Health Organization. In 1965, at the age of 34, he became Director of the Hall Institute and concurrently serving as Professor of Medical Biology at the University of Melbourne. In 1996 he retired from both positions.

Early in his time with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Gus established the function of monoclonal antibodies. However, he says that “I did a lot of good work for the rest of the 40 years, some of it was quite different but science is an incremental thing. Everything builds on everything else, it’s a pattern, it’s a mosaic.”

Becoming an expert in the area of immunology has meant that, particularly through his work with the World Health Organization, Gus has contributed to the battle against infectious diseases in the Third World. Much of this work has aimed to close the gap between the First and Third World in the area of medicine. From 1993 to 2002 he was Chairman of the committee overseeing the WHO’s Vaccines and Biologicals Program. In 1997, he turned his support to the Bill and Melinda Gates Children’s Vaccine Program, Chairing the Strategic Advisory Council until 2003. The Bill and Melinda Gates Children’s Vaccine Program aims to eradicate infectious diseases such as polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, poliomyelitis and yellow fever from under-developed countries. The program was funded by a highly generous benefaction from Bill and Melinda Gates, and is dedicated to making vaccinations available to the Third World. Closer to home, Gus accepted an approach to become the Deputy Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1998 and for three years he made Aboriginal health issues and reconciliation a professional priority.

Further to these appointments, Gus has been active on numerous National and International councils and committees. From 1986 to 1989 he was President of the International Union of Immunological Societies; from 1994 to 1998, the President of the Australian Academy of Science; from 1989 to 1998, a Member of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council; and from 1987 to 1996, Chairman of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. He was also involved in charitable work as Chairman of the Felton Bequests’ Committee from 1969 to 2004. Gus remains a Principal of Foursight Associates Pty Ltd; and Chairman of the Global Foundation Advisory Council.

Gus has stressed that there has been a common theme that has run throughout his career, namely that from his perspective, “medical science remains at the service of the human community” and that “medical science can never divorce itself from the ordinary person”. For Gus, the responsibility of science is to create further justice.

In his interview with Anglican Media, he discusses the marriage of his religious beliefs and science. He says that most people think that science and religion are ‘rivals’ but he stills calls himself a Catholic. He says:

For me, a large part of that is a tremendously strong identification with the mission of the Church. An instinct for justice is central to that mission and central to being a Catholic…
Science deals with fundamentally repeatable, objective, verifiable observations. It deals with hypotheses of which you can at least say “this is not patently false.” But the human experience, on the other hand, does not just deal with verifiable facts. The human experience has Shakespeare. It has Beethoven. It has Thomas Aquinas. There is no scientist alive who can tell me how the brain of Shakespeare differs from the brain of the worst scribbler for the tabloid press. This is not yet and may never be in the realm of science… We have to access this huge other area of human experience through other means. Call them the humanities. Theology, of course, is one of the great humanities. A human being struggling to understand the cosmos and to understand his or her own consciousness is not at all antipathetic or opposed to me struggling to understand how cells make antibody molecules.

Gus is a prolific writer and has written five books and 530 scientific articles.

He has received numerous international awards. For him, the most significant are Fellow of the Royal Society, Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, Member of the Academie des Sciences, France, the Robert Koch Gold Medal, the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, the Emil von Behring Prize, the Rabbi Shai Shacknai Prize, and over 120 named lectureships in 10 countries.

Gus was knighted in 1977, and was made Companion of the Order of Australia in 1989. He was appointed Australian of the Year in 2000.

1  From The Wisdom Interviews with Peter Thompson, ABC Radio, April 2002. 
2  ibid.
3  ibid.
4  From an interview by Michael McGirr for Anglican News, November 2000, http://www.media.anglican.com.au/tma/2000/2000_11/gus.html
5  ibid.

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Nossal, Sir Gustav Joseph Victor. 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.