The passing of a great Australian scientist

“[The 33rd World Health Assembly] Calls this unprecedented achievement in the history of public health to the attention of all nations, which by their collective action have freed mankind of this ancient scourge and, in so doing, have demonstrated how nations working together in a common cause may further human progress”

– extract from WHA33.3, the formal World Health Organisation (WHO) declaration of the eradication of smallpox.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the global eradication of smallpox and now also sadly marks the passing of an extraordinary Australian scientist who played a major role in freeing the world of this devastating disease.

Professor Frank Fenner was chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication in the late 1960s. After an intensive global investigation, in what he describes as a stand out day in his career, he had the honour of addressing the World Health Assembly and declaring the world free of the disease in 1980.

His extensive experience in animal pox viruses meant he and the international team he worked with were well qualified to determine that there was no animal host harbouring a virus able to reintroduce the disease to humans. Along with two other scientists, this work was recognised with the Japan Prize which is considered the applied science equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

However his work with small pox eradication is just one achievement in a long and distinguished career.

While Professor Fenner was completing his residency for his medical degree, the Second World War began. Because he believed that the war would be fought in the tropics, he completed a degree in tropical medicine before joining the Australian Army Medical Corps. This proved to be a fortuitous decision as he spent a large proportion of his time in the service working as a malariologist with several well known scientists in many countries including Syria and Papua New Guinea. The observations and experiments conducted led to a much greater understanding of the disease.

After the war, Professor Fenner returned to Australia to work with another great Australian Scientist, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnett at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. There he studied a disease in mice called ectromelia, which he discovered was actually the smallpox of mice. He was the first to publish with the term mousepox and his studies into the progression of the disease during its incubation period would prove extremely valuable in his later work.

In order to gain some experience in an overseas lab, a fellowship in the Rockefeller Institute in New York was arranged in 1949. There Professor Fenner conducted experiments on tubercle bacilli, a mycobacterium associated with tuberculosis. Following on from his supervisor’s work, he was able to develop a new system for counting the bacteria which had previously been very difficult. Luckily, unlike many of his colleagues, Professor Fenner managed to avoid picking up a tuberculosis infection in the lab. In those days the most common way to transfer liquids in the lab was with mouth pipettes, basically a glass tube that was operated by mouth like a drinking straw.

As the fellowship ended he was offered a position as Professor of Microbiology at the not yet built John Curtin School of Medicine at the Australian National University. He worked in Melbourne until the University provided temporary huts to use while their permanent building was being completed.

Professor Fenner began working on myxomatosis, the virus that would eventually be responsible for controlling the rabbit population, one of the greatest agricultural pests of the 1940s and 1950s.

The virus was spread by mosquitoes, and the initial release of the disease was undertaken in the winter with little success. However in December of 1950, the weather conditions were ideal for mosquitoes and the disease spread rapidly, resulting in an unprecedented 99 per cent mortality rate in the field.

Presented with a unique opportunity to study a virus and its host in a natural environment, Professor Fenner spent 15 years working on myxomatosis. The initial mortality rate placed high selection pressure on the rabbits, meaning the population was quickly reduced to those with genetic resistance to the disease. There were interesting observations about the changes in the voracity of the virus and resistance in the rabbits. He observed in lab experiments that the more virulent, or most deadly, strains of the virus had less opportunities to be passed on as the rabbits were killed more quickly. So the less virulent strains eventually became more common, leading to more resistance in the rabbit population.

As well as his breakthroughs in studying the virus itself, Professor Fenner is well known for other reasons associated with myxomatosis. Around the time the virus was released, there was an outbreak of encephalitis in humans. People feared the encephalitis was caused by the myxomatosis virus and in order to demonstrate its safety to the Australian people Professor Fenner, along with other scientists, injected themselves with the virus.

After a six year term as Director of the John Curtin School beginning in 1967, and his extensive work with the smallpox eradication program with the WHO, Professor Fenner turned his sights on starting a new centre at ANU. He was named Director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies which is now a part of the Fenner School of Environment and Society, one of only a handful of schools of its type for interdisciplinary science.

As well as all of the achievements at the bench and in the field, this award winning scientist was also a prolific scientific writer, producing around 300 scientific papers and eleven books.

Professor Fenner will be sorely missed in both the Australian and global scientific communities. In the words of his close friend and colleague, Sir Gustav Nossal, “What a life, what a career, what generosity of spirit with his many contributions to the Australian Academy of Science. We shall not see his like again!”

The Australian Academy of science has an extensive interview with Professor Fenner on their website.

For further information on Professor Fenner: