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Laver, William Graeme (Graeme) (1929–2008)

by Harriet Veitch

from Sydney Morning Herald

Flu researcher's curiosity led to vaccine

In 2005, after years as one of the world's leading influenza researchers, and co-winner of the 1996 Australia Prize for science, Graeme Laver summed up his life: "What I have done is not to set out to make any money, not to cure humanity's ills. What I've done is to try to satisfy my curiosity in trying to discover new things."

Laver's first key discovery, reported in 1964, was when he showed that the infectious particles of influenza, one of humanity's greatest scourges, could be disassembled using detergents, and could yield purified forms of two important surface proteins, the hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). He and his colleague Rob Webster then used the proteins to make a new type of influenza vaccine.

Before this, flu vaccines had been made with inactivated whole viruses, which caused bad side effects. Laver' and Webster's work meant that only the immunity producing particles were used, getting rid of most of the other problems. During these years of research Laver used at least 300,000 hen eggs (16.5 tonnes) and was at the time Australia's biggest user of eggs.

The flu crystals were then studied by other scientists, and the three-dimensional structure of the NA sub-units was plotted. This structure was used to design the inhibitory compounds that led eventually to the anti-flu drugs Relenza and Tamiflu.

William Graeme Laver, who has died aged 79, was born in Diamond Creek, Victoria, then a small town and now an outer suburb of Melbourne. His father, Laurence Otto Laver (known as Lol) was a concert pianist and teacher at the Melbourne Conservatorium who turned to potato farming at Kinglake, where he met and married Madge Trounson, a teacher. She later worked as an accountant until she retired.

Madge taught Graeme and his younger sister Corelle at home until the Depression forced the family off the farm and into Melbourne, when Graeme was about eight. Lol returned to teaching at the conservatorium, and Graeme went to Ivanhoe Grammar, where he payed attention mostly to chemistry and sport.

He left school at 16 and started work as a general help and bottle washer at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute while he did his matriculation at night school. He then continued at the institute to support himself through a bachelor of science at Melbourne University, which took seven years. He graduated in 1954 and married Judith Cahn, whom he had met through the university mountaineering club.

He then did his masters degree in biochemistry in Melbourne and completed a PhD at London University on a CSIRO scholarship. Appointed to the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra, he and Judy returned to Australia by driving from London to Mumbai then taking a ship (with the car on board).

Laver always loved an adventure, and even when he took his growing family to the beach would spend hours fighting through scrub and scrambling down cliffs to reach beaches that nobody else ever visited. He would walk all day to a remote creek to camp overnight, catch a fish and walk home again. Colleagues and children were taken bush bashing, gold panning and opal fossicking.

In the early 1970s Laver organised expeditions to the Barrier Reef coral cays to track influenza in sea birds. The scientists swabbed the throats of hundreds of birds and found 18 with antibodies to a human flu virus from 1957.

Webster established a similar project in North America, and he and Laver found that the virus was widespread in the birds of both continents. With further work, Laver showed that the human 1957 flu virus had some of the same molecular features as avian flu viruses, and Webster proved that influenza pandemics begin when avian and human flu viruses combine to form a new strain of the disease.

In 1980 the Laver family moved from Canberra to a property at Murrumbateman. Laver had beef cattle, grew wine grapes and had a large vegetable garden. He also loved volcanoes - the more active the better. His list of climbs, usually with one of his children, included Grimsvotn (Iceland), Kilauea (Hawaii), Augustine (Alaska) and Ngauruhoe (New Zealand). In 2001 he joined the Australian Army Alpine Association expedition to Mount Everest for a week.

Laver officially retired from the John Curtin school in 1995, after being made a professor in 1990; he had become a fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1987. He remained active and had recently been lobbying at the highest levels to have anti-flu drugs such as Tamiflu available over the counter. He was on the way to an influenza conference in Portugal when he died.

Graeme Laver is survived by Judy, their children Rowan, Penny and Merran and grandchildren Aulikki, Lara and Ethan.

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Citation details

Harriet Veitch, 'Laver, William Graeme (Graeme) (1929–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/laver-william-graeme-graeme-18708/text30304, accessed 12 November 2019.

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