Black and white portrait of frank fenner

Frank Fenner – Australian original

Each year the Australian Government recognises the nation’s scientists and science educators by awarding the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. Along with providing recognition for achievements, recipients share up to $A750,000 in prize money. One of the most important accolades on offer is the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

Yet few people know of Fenner’s achievements.

Frank Fenner was born in Ballarat, Victoria, on 21 December 1914, but the family moved to Adelaide, South Australia, in 1916.

Fenner attended the University of Adelaide and received bachelor degrees in medicine and surgery in 1938, and a Doctor of Medicine in 1942. He also received a Diploma of Tropical Medicine from the University of Sydney in 1940.

A biography published by the John Curtin School of Medical Research, part of the Australian National University, says that from 1940 to 1946, Fenner “served in Egypt and Papua New Guinea as an officer in the Australian Army Medical Corps, where he worked on the malarial parasite”.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, he went to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, where he studied the virus that causes smallpox in mice.

In 1949 he received a fellowship to study in the United States at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where he carried out research on tubercle bacilli, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

Returning to Australia in 1949, he was appointed professor of microbiology at the then-new John Curtin School of Medical Research, where he continued his research into viruses, “in particular the myxoma virus. He was interested in the balance between virus virulence and host resistance.”

A 2011 article published by the CSIRO, titled “Myxomatosis to control rabbits”, describes how Fenner, “who had already established an international reputation for his work on Ectromelia or mousepox (smallpox of mice), went on to make major contributions to myxoma virus research ranging from epidemiology to molecular genetics. He published detailed findings on the pathogenesis, morphology, classification, relationship with other poxviruses, and immunity.”

Rabbits had been introduced to Australia in 1859 “by a wealthy Victorian grazier keen on the sport of hunting”, but “soon millions of rabbits were competing with Australia’s livestock for feed and were damaging the environment”.

The initial release of the myxoma virus led to “a dramatic reduction of Australia’s rabbit population. Within two years of the virus’ release in 1950, Australia’s wool and meat production recovered from the rabbit onslaught to the tune of $68 million.”

The CSIRO also recounts a memorable public scare over the simultaneous outbreak of human encephalitis in northern Victoria.

To calm public anxiety that myxomatosis might have been the cause of this deadly human brain disease, Fenner, along with CSIRO chairman Ian Clunies Ross and renowned Australian scientist Macfarlane Burnet, “injected themselves with myxoma virus. They were unaffected, proving conclusively that the suggestion was without foundation.”

In 1969, Fenner joined an international group working under the World Health Organisation with the aim of eradicating smallpox from the world.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a series of interviews given to the Australian Academy of Science in 1992 and 1993, Fenner described how the smallpox eradication program was set up in 1967.

“It was known from 1958 that another virus caused a smallpox-like disease in monkeys – it was called monkeypox virus, naturally enough,” Fenner said.

“I was a member of the small committee of virologists that met for the first time in Moscow in 1969 to discuss whether this virus might constitute an animal reservoir of smallpox. I later became chairman of that committee, and from that I just got increasingly involved, not in the actual eradication program but in trying to certify that a country or a continent was free of smallpox. Ultimately, I was chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication – a long-sounding title for the commission and a very challenging role for me.

“Finally, we got signatures from every country in the world that there had been no cases of smallpox in the last two years, and certified that smallpox had been globally eradicated,” Fenner said.

In 1980 Fenner presented a report to the World Health Assembly announcing the eradication of the disease.

He said that he “felt a big responsibility to get those 20 people, from 18 different countries … to agree to a series of 19 recommendations. They finally did that, an historic moment, and so we had champagne at 3.30 in the afternoon on Sunday, 9 December. The WHO don’t often have champagne there, and certainly not on Sunday afternoon. But we thought it was a worthy occasion.”

As an active environmentalist, Fenner worked with the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at Australian National University, served as vice-president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and was a member of the scientific advisory board of the UN Environment Program.

He made headlines around the world in 2010 when he described the potential end of humanity on Earth within 100 years.

“We’re going to become extinct,” he said. “Whatever we do now is too late.

“Climate change is just at the very beginning. But we’re seeing remarkable changes in the weather already.

“Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years. A lot of other animals will, too. It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late.”

Frank Fenner died in Canberra on 22 November 2010. In its obituary, the The Guardian called him “indisputably one of Australia’s greatest scientists”.