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Fenner, Frank Johannes (1914–2010)

by Bridie Smith

Frank Fenner, by Loui Seselja, 2001

Frank Fenner, by Loui Seselja, 2001

National Library of Australia, 22966245

In 1980, Frank Fenner made one of the most momentous announcements in the history of human health. Smallpox – which had plagued mankind since the time of the pharaohs – had been eradicated.

Over millenniums the virus had killed, blinded and hideously disfigured its sufferers, accounting for up to 500 million deaths during the 20th century alone. As recently as 1967, 2 million people died from smallpox and about 15 million people contracted it.

But, on May 8, 1980, the Ballarat-born scientist was able to declare to the World Health Assembly in Geneva that, after a decades-long vaccination campaign: ''The world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.''

Yesterday, Professor Fenner died after a brief illness, weeks before his 96th birthday. He was immediately hailed as one of the greats of Australian science.

''He is the prince of Australian virologists,'' said Sir Gustav Nossal, of Melbourne University's pathology department. ''He's a household name wherever infectious disease people meet. There wouldn't be anybody in medical science who would not know of his work.''

But despite his achievements, like many scientists, Professor Fenner was probably better known overseas.

''Sadly, his name would not be a household name the way that Ricky Ponting, Greg Norman or Dame Joan Sutherland would be,'' Sir Gus said. ''But the fact remains that the work that he's done is of supreme importance.''

His job with the World Health Organisation was to oversee the smallpox eradication program, which broadly involved isolating new cases and vaccinating nearby populations. The program's success is still regarded as among WHO's greatest achievements.

Sitting alongside his work on smallpox was his work on malaria in Papua New Guinea – for which he was made an MBE in 1945 – and helping control Australia's rabbit plague through the introduction of the myxoma virus.

Along with virologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet and parasitologist Ian Clunies Ross, he famously injected himself with the myxoma virus to prove it was not dangerous to humans.

He was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1989, and won the Japan Prize for preventive medicine in 1988, the Copley medal of the Royal Society in 1995 and the Albert Einstein World Award of Science in 2000.

He remained a modest man with a firm loyalty to Australia and to Australian science. He preferred his research to be published in Australian journals ahead of prestigious international journals such as Nature and was also a generous donor to the Australian Academy of Science.

Phil Hodgkin, head of immunology at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said Professor Fenner remained ''incredibly sharp of mind'' well into his 90s. ''He was able to pass that on, with a very generous manner, to generations of young scientists.''

Peter Doherty, who won a Nobel prize for medicine in 1996, described Frank Fenner as ''a genuine Australian hero'' and a passionate environmentalist.

Professor Doherty said a fitting tribute would be for federal parliamentarians to honour his commitment to environmental science and pass a carbon pollution reduction scheme.

Frank Fenner's wife, medical scientist Ellen ''Bobbie'' Fenner, died in 1995.

He is survived by his daughter Marilyn, various grandchildren and a great grandchild, born several days before his death.

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Citation details

Bridie Smith, 'Fenner, Frank Johannes (1914–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2022.

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