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Gordon Leslie Ada (1922–2012)

by Gustav Nossal and Chris Parish

Professor Gordon Leslie Ada, one of Australia’s leading microbiologists, made many important contributions in the field of virology and immunology, and helped foster a scientific research environment that led to a Nobel Prize–winning discovery. He made a significant contribution to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Australian Academy of Science, and was a mentor to many Australian medical research scientists. Gordon passed away peacefully in Canberra after a short illness, aged 89.

Gordon Ada was born in Sydney, the fourth of six children. His father, William Leslie Ada, was the Chief Electrical Engineer of the New South Wales Railways. His mother was Erica Maude Flower. During secondary school, a Christmas present, The Science of Life, fascinated young Gordon. He was educated at the University of Sydney, completing a Bachelor of Science in 1943, a Master of Science in 1946 and a Doctor of Science in 1959.

Gordon began his career in 1944 as a research scientist at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in Melbourne, before moving to London to work at the National Institute for Medical Research in Hampstead, where he mastered new biophysical techniques to study proteins.

In 1948, at Sir Macfarlane Burnet’s invitation, he returned to Australia to join the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne. Gordon studied the biochemistry of the influenza virus and, surprisingly, found that its genes were composed not of DNA but of the related molecule, RNA. This was of fundamental importance.

When Burnet switched the emphasis of WEHI from virology to immunology, the study of the natural defence system of the body, Gordon worked out ways of tracing where the vaccine molecules (called antigens) went after injection. This resulted in much deeper knowledge of what is known as immunological memory, the fact that booster shots of vaccine work much better than the first dose. Another famous (but complex) study, picturesquely called the ‘hot antigen suicide’ experiment, contributed crucial knowledge on how the white blood cells fabricate protective antibody molecules.

After 20 years of service at WEHI, Professor Ada was invited to join the John Curtin School of Medical Research at The Australian National University as Head of the Department of Microbiology. He brought with him the belief that if research projects combining both virological and immunological approaches were strongly encouraged, some exciting findings could be made. He was right.

Professor Ada strengthened immunological research in the department by recruiting staff and students with an interest in immunology. A collaboration between the most notable recruits, Peter Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel, resulted in a Nobel Prize–winning discovery on how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells and selectively destroys them. But this was not the only paradigm-shifting discovery made during this period; there were several other seminal ones that underpin our current understanding of the immune system.

Gordon Ada was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1964. He served as Foreign Secretary of the Academy from 1977 to 1981, where, amongst other things, he helped forge Australian scientific links in China.

For 20 years, beginning in 1971, Gordon was an important contributor to the WHO. He served on a number of committees and chaired the Scientific Advisory Group of Experts for the WHO Programme for Vaccine Development from 1984 to 1989. He was also a founding member of the Australian Society for Immunology and was its President in 1974 and 1975.

Professor Ada retired from the John Curtin School in 1987. During a plenary lecture on the prospects of an AIDS vaccine at the International Congress on AIDS in Stockholm in 1988, Gordon, somewhat contentiously, stated that ‘there will not be a vaccine against HIV for some time’. Partly as a result, he was invited to join the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, where he soon became Director of the Center for AIDS Research.

On his return to Australia in 1992, he was appointed Visiting Fellow in the Department of Immunology at the John Curtin School and Chairman of the Australian HIV Vaccine Working Group. In 1993, Gordon Ada was awarded an AO for service to medicine in the field of immunology and international health.

In his retirement, Gordon remained a passionate advocate for vaccination, co-authoring a book for parents, educators and students, and talking with community and school groups about the virtues of vaccination. He found time in his retirement to return to his passion for sailing and could be often found sailing on Lake Burley Griffin.

n 1946, Gordon married Jean Macpherson, whom he had met in 1944 at CSL. After a long and happy marriage, Jean died in 2005 after an extended illness, throughout which Gordon remained a devoted husband and carer.

Gordon Ada, who regarded family as one of his greatest achievements and pleasures, is survived by his four children, Ian, Andrew, Louise and Neil, four grandsons and two great-grandsons.

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Citation details

Gustav Nossal and Chris Parish, 'Ada, Gordon Leslie (1922–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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