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Ellen Margaret (Bobbie) Fenner (1911–1995)

by Gordon Ada

Mrs Bobbie Fenner, wife of Professor Frank Fenner, died a few days after Christmas, following a long fight against cancer.

She was born in, trained and worked as a nurse in Perth. She enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in late 1939, served in the Middle East and then in Queensland where she met Frank in 1944. Both had been working on malaria, so they shared an interest in medical research which was to endure. When Frank was offered a position at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in 1945, she worked part time as an unpaid technical assistant with him.

While working at the Rockefeller Institute in New York in 1948, Frank was offered the Foundation Chair of Microbiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU. On his return to Australia, he was based initially at the Hall Institute but the family moved to Canberra in late 1952 when laboratories became available. Bobbie played a major part in the design and supervision of the construction of the fine Robin Boyd house at the corner of Torres Street and Monaro Crescent where they lived.

Bobbie had a passion for gardening, especially for growing flowers which were provided liberally for many different private and community functions. Much of her spare time was spent in services to many community affairs, including a number of charities. Her work was recognised by several awards, including in 1980 an Order of Australia Medal.

She was always the gracious hostess on the many occasions visitors to the John Curtin School or to the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies were invited to the Fenner home. From 1984 onwards, she and Frank made generous donations both to the University and to the Australian Academy of Science, in part to support scientific conferences. The best known are the Annual Frank and Bobbie Fenner Symposia on Medical Research, held at the John Curtin School, and on Environmental Topics, held at the Academy.

She and Frank, with their daughter, Marilyn, son-in-law, Arthur Marshall and grandchildren, Sally and Simon Marshall, were the special toast at a grand dinner celebration at Old Parliament House, on the occasion of the sixth Frank and Bobbie Fenner Medical Symposium in November, 1994, held then to celebrate Frank's 80th birthday.

When so many modern day marriages fail over time, their marriage was a fine example of two strong personalities entering into a lasting partnership, each lending great support in many ways to the other. Even though she realised that the end could not be far away, Bobbie insisted that Frank attend the meeting at the Royal Society in London in early December, at which he received the Copley Medal, a most prestigious award.

Frank is now back at work at the University for which he and Bobbie directed so much of their energies over such a long period towards making it a great Institution. The University recognised that contribution inter alia by the naming of Fenner Hall in their honour.

Original publication

Citation details

Gordon Ada, 'Fenner, Ellen Margaret (Bobbie) (1911–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 May, 1911
Ravensthorpe, Western Australia, Australia


December, 1995 (aged 84)

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)