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Sir Frank Macfarlane (Mac) Burnet (1899–1985)

Frank MacFarlane Burnet, c.1968

Frank MacFarlane Burnet, c.1968

State Library of Victoria, 49195734

Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Australia's only Nobel Laureate for Medicine, died yesterday at the age of 85 at his son's home in Port Fairy, western Victoria.

Born Frank Macfarlane Burnet in Traralgon, eastern Victoria, on September 3, 1899, the second of six children.

Sir Macfarlane was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1960 after a distinguished career of medical research. Sir Macfarlane's early years in the Victorian countryside bred a deep love of nature.

At 14, he went to board at Geelong College, where he became dux of the school and won a residential scholarship to Melbourne University's Ormond College. In 1922 he graduated in medicine second in his year and became a resident at the Melbourne Hospital.

Though deeply impressed with his early mentors, Richard Stawell in medicine and Alan Newton in surgery, Sir Macfarlane turned from clinical work to the laboratory after one year, becoming a senior resident pathologist. He took quickly to laboratory work and attracted the attention of Charles Kellaway, the director of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Kellaway arranged a two-year fellowship for him at the Lister Institute in London.

Apart from this period (1926-27) and a second stint at The National Institute for Medical Research in London in 1932-33, Sir Macfarlane's career was at the Hall Institute, of which he was assistant director from 1928 to 1944 and director from 1944 to 1965. The director's post carried with it a Chair in Experimental Medicine at the University of Melbourne.

The stable professional background was the backdrop to a spectacularly adventurous scientific career which progressed from virology to immunology and into high scientific statesmanship at an international level.

The first decade of Sir Macfarlane's work was devoted to the then little-known study of viruses. He was the first to devise truly quantitative methods to grow and study viruses and to show they were affected by the central rules of Darwinian natural selection, based on genetic mutations.

He also discovered their genetic material (not then known to be DNA) could integrate into the genetic material of the host cell and assume a latent state until reawakened by some external influence. This concept, later refined by other workers, underlies much current theorising about viruses as carcinogens.

He turned next to animal viruses, concerning himself with their isolation, identification, growth and understanding in an ecological setting.

From the early 1930s to the late 1950s, Sir Macfarlane was a leader in the science of virology. He pioneered the use of fertile hen's eggs as hosts for virus multiplication. He found that influenza virus could be grown in large amounts within the egg, and these methods are still in use for vaccine production.

While influenza research was the dominant theme, both Sir Macfarlane and his co-workers worked on other viruses, including poliomyelitis, herpes, Murray Valley encephalitis, myxomatoses and smallpox-like viruses.

Distinguished studies on organisms midway between viruses and bacteria – parrot-fever and Q-fever – and one Q-fever agent bear Sir Macfarlane's name.

Sir Macfarlane developed a major interest in the body's defence mechanism against viruses, the immune system.

He tried to solve the puzzle of how the cells of the immune system could make antibody molecules.

In 1957 Sir Macfarlane decided to switch the whole Hall Institute into research in this area.

He may be longest remembered for his theorising into the nature of antibody formation and immune processes.

He developed the notion of immunological tolerance to explain why we do not form antibodies to our own bodily constituents.

He proposed a radical new theory about the white cells called lymphocytes, the "clonal selection" theory, and wrote about how mistakes of the immune system might underly obscure forms of blood, liver and kidney disease.

Sir Macfarlane strongly promoted the concept of auto-immune diseases.

His Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1960 was for immunology.

Sir Macfarlane's peers recognised his worth in many ways.

He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1942 and won its Royal and Copley Medals.

A Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, Sir Macfarlane also served as its President from 1965 to 1969.

A number of civil honours also came his way, most prominently, his knighthood in 1951, the Order of Merit in 1958 and Knight of Australia in 1977.

Though his specialised work occupied most of Sir Macfarlane's waking hours, he liked to interpret science for the layman, and he wrote freely after retiring. Between 1965 and 1980 Sir Macfarlane wrote 16 books.

As a scientist of such stature, Sir Macfarlane was in great demand by decision-makers within and outside science. He did important work in Australia on the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Radiation Advisory Committee and the Australian Academy of Science.

Internationally, his major involvement was with the World Health Organisation.

His views were not always popular with his colleagues – particularly his gloomy prognostications about cures for cancer or his brief but loudly-voiced disillusionment with molecular biology.

But popular or not, Sir Macfarlane believed he had earned the right to speak out with conviction.

He married Linda Druce in 1928 and they remained a close partnership for more than 40 years. They had two daughters, a son and eight grandchildren. Some years after Lady Burnet's death, Sir Macfarlane married Hazel Jenkin, who survives him. His son, Mr Ian Burnet, said Sir Macfarlane had cancer and had moved from the Melbourne suburb of Canterbury to be with him at Port Fairy three weeks ago.

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'Burnet, Sir Frank Macfarlane (Mac) (1899–1985)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

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