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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Fenner, Frank Johannes (1914–2010)

by Peter McCullagh

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Frank Fenner, by Loui Seselja, 2001

Frank Fenner, by Loui Seselja, 2001

National Library of Australia, 22966245

Frank Fenner was a member of The Australian National University for over six decades. He filled a number of roles and achieved notable success in all of them. In a career characterised by self-discipline, humility and relentless application to the task in hand, he brought greater credit to the University than any other scientist.

Frank John Fenner was born at Ballarat on 21 December 1914, the second son of Emma and Charles Fenner. After schooling in Adelaide, he studied medicine at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 1938. All male members of that graduating class subsequently enlisted. Frank Fenner entered the Army in 1940, serving in the Middle East, New Guinea and Borneo. He joined the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne in 1946 and, while there, was appointed Foundation Professor of Microbiology in the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) in 1949. He left this position in 1967 to become the first Director of the school and, in 1974, he became the founding Director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (CRES). On retirement from CRES, he returned to JCSMR to work with undiminished intensity.

Fenner’s life may conveniently be considered in four periods, the first of which antedated his ANU association. A number of themes recurred throughout all four. An Adelaide newspaper reported in 1926 that Frank had tied for first place among the 8,000 candidates sitting the qualifying certificate examinations for high school entry. It was observed that ‘He is a delightful specimen of Australian boyhood and is as efficient on the sportsfield as in the schoolroom’. The reporter also commented that the 11-year-old Frank was keen to be a farmer.

In another expression of environmental interest, he elected to take geology and botany concurrently with the medical course subjects. This probably reflected a family interest as Charles, who was at that time Director of Education in South Australia and Lecturer in Geography at the University of Adelaide, had published extensively on that subject. One of his books, South Australia: A Geographical Study, Structural, Regional and Human, published in 1934, remained profitably readable at the end of the century. As a university student, Frank gained his blue in hockey, again presaging a lifetime of participation in sport, ultimately tennis.

His Army service was predominantly as a malariologist, reflecting his completion of a tropical medicine course before enlisting. In the course of an interview in 2002, he recollected that, soon after posting to Palestine, he was considered to have erected an advance dressing station in an inappropriate location and was ‘transferred out of the field ambulance to Corps Headquarters because they thought that was probably a safer place for me’.

Returning from the Middle East, he was responsible for treating malaria in servicemen returning from Papua New Guinea. As no cases of trauma were coming to the Hughenden Hospital in Queensland where he was based, and consequently there was no call for blood transfusion, the Transfusion Sister was reassigned to assist Fenner with his malaria laboratory work. The sister, Bobbie Roberts, and Frank Fenner were married days before he was posted to Papua for two and a half years. This began a 50-year partnership enduring until Bobbie’s death in 1995. That partnership is commemorated in endowed Frank and Bobbie Fenner Conferences held annually in the JCSMR.

His extensive experience of malaria, recognised by the award of an MBE in 1944, led Fenner to decide that his future career would be in research on infectious diseases. In 1946, he left the Army for a fellowship at the Hall Institute. Whilst he remained a member of the institute for only three years, and part of that was spent visiting the Rockefeller Institute, the time spent with Macfarlane Burnet had a major influence on his subsequent career interests. The lack of laboratories suitable for research with infectious agents in Canberra before the construction of the JCSMR resulted in Fenner remaining physically in the Hall Institute for three years after his appointment to ANU.

A landmark of Fenner’s period as a member of the Hall Institute was the publication in 1949 of the monograph The Production of Antibodies, co‑authored with Burnet. The significance of this book, which was a revision of Burnet’s 1941 edition, lay in its proposal that the exposure of a young, immature animal to foreign cells or tissues would confuse its immune system into regarding other foreign transplants from the same source as ‘self’. This prediction of the phenomenon subsequently referred to as ‘immunological tolerance’ led to Burnet sharing the 1960 Nobel Prize. In discussion of this book, Fenner was to emphasise that he was the junior author (‘I got the dates together and Burnet wrote the book’). Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that aspects of Fenner’s thinking were without influence on the senior author.

Fenner’s laboratory research during his period at the Hall Institute entailed a detailed study of the infectious processes leading to development of mousepox after infection of an animal with ectromelia virus. This early association with the manner in which a poxvirus infection evolved was to influence research in the Microbiology Department following Fenner’s move to Canberra and, unpredictably at the time, to lead to his commitment to dealing with human smallpox on an international scale a quarter of a century later.

The second arbitrarily selected period extended over 1949–67, when Frank Fenner led the Microbiology Department in JCSMR. Whilst the school’s permanent building was not opened until 1958, temporary laboratories had been established on the campus six years before this. Ian Marshall, an original member of the department, has described Frank’s arrival in Canberra early in November 1952 in his Morris Minor (with the hood down) closely followed by Bobbie in a Ford Prefect. Fenner’s first major research project at ANU was directed to study of myxomatosis (another pox virus) as a mechanism for biological control of rabbits. Coincidentally, the introduction of the virus into the rabbit population corresponded with unusual climatic conditions that led to an outbreak of Murray Valley encephalitis in the Murray–Darling basin. Perceptions that the two events were associated gained currency and, in one of the legendary episodes in the history of Australian epidemics, Fenner and two CSIRO colleagues deliberately self-inoculated with myxomatosis virus to refute that association.

In reminiscing about his myxomatosis research many years later, Fenner explained that the placement of this ‘pure curiosity-driven research’ in a medical research, rather than a veterinary or agricultural, institution reflected the reality that there were no virologists in the latter. The outcome of this project remains one of the classic studies of the co‑evolution of a virus and its vertebrate host. The relevance of this study has continued to increase over time, with the emergence of diseases such as AIDS, variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and SARS caused by agents that had crossed from other species rather than co-evolving with human hosts. As myxomatosis proved to be less than ideal for investigation of all aspects of pox virus biology, Fenner’s research progressed to a third pox virus, vaccinia or cowpox, which was used clinically in vaccination against smallpox.

Fenner’s growing reputation in the 1950s was reflected in his election as a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science and the Royal Society. In the light of the subsequent careers of its members, the Microbiology Department of this period can confidently be categorised as one of the strongest scientific groups in the University’s history. Researchers such as John Cairns and Stephen Fazekas were close to Fenner in age and of independent minds, which, by all accounts, made it a challenging department to lead. Further recognition of Fenner’s scientific standing came in the 1960s in the form of the Leeuwenhoek Lectureship of the Royal Society and the Britannica Australia Award.

Frank Fenner’s third period spanned directorships of two institutions. With his appointment as the first Director of JCSMR in 1967, he left bench for books. Of these, the two most notable were The Biology of Animal Viruses (1967) and Medical Virology (1974). Shortly after his career transition, his experience of pox viruses led to an invitation to join an international scientific project to eliminate smallpox. This led in 1977 to his appointment as Chairman of the Global Commission for Certification of Smallpox Eradication. He nominated 8 May 1990, when he announced the eradication to the World Health Assembly, as the proudest day of his life.

Fenner’s second directorship, again as the first incumbent, was in the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at ANU and commenced in 1973. His environmental interests found expression in activities such as being Vice-President of the Australian Conservation Foundation (1971–73) and a member of the Senior Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Environment Programme. Recognition of his achievements, accorded during this period, included a CMG in 1976, followed in 1977 by election as a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Science.

Fenner’s fourth period commenced with his retirement from the CRES Directorship at the end of 1979. It could be argued, notwithstanding the distinction of his previous accomplishments, that the example set for others in his ‘retirement’ was among his most notable legacies. Shortly before retiring, he wrote to the Director of JCSMR requesting an appointment as a Visiting Fellow in the school for the following two years. His letter concluded, ‘I would like to believe that there was a possibility of extending the visiting fellowship after December 1981’. As it turned out, he continued most productively in the fellowship for more than two decades.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of his retirement was the succession of awards he received. Among these were the 1980 Anzac Peace Prize, the 1988 Japan Prize, an AC in 1989, the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1995 and the Prime Minister’s Science Prize in 2002. Apart from a number of books dealing with historical aspects of science, he was co‑author in 1988 of an encyclopaedic tome, Smallpox and its Eradication. In an instructive illustration of the durability of scientific knowledge, he was co‑opted more than 20 years after his nominal retirement to advise national expert groups on the potential for pox viruses in bioterrorism.

Apart from his more widely publicised achievements in retirement, two other aspects—namely his philanthropy and his unstinting accessibility to academics and students—were notable. The Fenners and, following Bobbie’s death, Frank made ongoing gifts to the University to encourage research and to assist students. These were not widely publicised but the naming of Fenner Hall in 1992 and of the Fenner Building in the ANU Medical School in 2004 will ensure that his name endures in the University.

As a Visiting Fellow in the JCSMR, Frank Fenner represented a repository of information on virology. If he did not have the required information at his fingertips, he could invariably tell one exactly where it could be found. An example of his retention of enthusiasm for information came in the early 1990s, when he sustained a pulmonary embolus following a flight from the UK. Soon after discharge from hospital, a cautionary email about deep vein thrombosis (long before this became a popular issue) was dispatched to school members. A decade later, when asked to give a two-hour presentation on bioterrorism to a group of undergraduates, he promptly produced a PowerPoint presentation that he had delivered to a U3A class a fortnight previously. He attracted a capacity audience on the Friday of Bush Week—a day on which all scheduled lectures in the University are always cancelled.

Frank Fenner is survived by his daughter, Marilyn. The example that he set at all stages of his life will undoubtedly have influenced many. The Australian National University has been extremely fortunate to have had such a member.

Other Obituaries for Frank Johannes Fenner

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter McCullagh, 'Fenner, Frank Johannes (1914–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fenner-frank-johannes-16799/text40465, accessed 28 September 2022.

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