The week in science history: a Nobel Prize-winning virologist dies


Frank Macfarlane Burnet laid the foundations of modern virology, and continues to be lauded today. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Frank Macfarlane Burnet, honoured in Australia's National Portrait Gallery.

Frank Macfarlane Burnet, honoured in Australia's National Portrait Gallery.

Mark Strizic/National Portrait Gallery

On the official website of the Nobel Prize, the biographical reference for Frank Macfarlane Burnet says: “It is impossible to give, in a brief space, an adequate idea of the range and fundamental importance of Burnet's work.”

Burnet, or Sir Frank, as he was to become, was born in Australia at Traralgon, Victoria, on September 3, 1899. He was educated in Victorian state schools and Geelong College, and then attended the University of Melbourne, where he earned degrees in science. In 1924 he received his MD qualification.

The Australian Academy of Science article on Burnet says he studied medicine because his only other choices were law or the church. While at university, the story continues, his attitudes towards religion changed and he became “consciously agnostic. Charles Darwin was his hero, whose writings exerted a profound influence on his scientific work, and H. G. Wells was an important influence on his views about science and society.”

In 1924 he went to work at the University of Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute as a medical resident and began studies into typhoid fever. Nobel.org goes on to say his research on the disease was followed by the work on viruses, “for which he is nowadays justly famous”.

Deciding that he needed overseas training, Burnet travelled to England in 1925. He gained a PhD from the University of London in 1928.

Returning to Australia that same year, the Academy of Science article describes an event called the “Bundaberg disaster”, in which several children died after receiving inoculations of diphtheria toxin-antitoxin. Burnet carried out the bacteriological investigations, leading to important studies on staphylococcal toxins. He also continued studies on bacteriophages, “producing papers later regarded as classics”.

In 1935 he isolated a strain of influenza-A virus in Australia, and subsequently did much work on its serological variations, and on Australian strains of the swine flu. He also published papers on variations in the virulence of influenza virus, and calculated its mutation rates.

The Nobel organisation notes that “Burnet has embodied his experience and experimental results, not only in numerous scientific papers, but in several books which show that he is a master, not only of a clear and attractive literary style, but also of lucid exposition of complex ideas and scientific facts.”

The human body’s immune system protects it against attacks by microorganisms and rejects foreign tissue. Immunity is in part inherited, but much is acquired and is thus not present in the foetus.

In 1949, Burnet theorised that the ability to distinguish between one's own and foreign tissue was an acquired trait. The theory was substantiated when British biologist Peter Medawar succeeded in performing transplants of tissue between different mouse foetuses. The results had significance for organ transplants.

The discovery of acquired immunological tolerance earned Burnet the 1960 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine, which he shared with Medawar.

He retired in 1978, but remained very active in policy circles until his death from cancer in 1985. So great were his achievements, he was accorded a state funeral, with some of the country’s most distinguished scientists acting as pall-bearers.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1960/burnet-bio.html
  2. http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/bsparcs/aasmemoirs/burnet.htm
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