Frank MacFarlane Burnet
Died: 1985, Port Fairy, Victoria, Australia
Frank MacFarlane Burnet was educated at the University of Melbourne and completed his medical residency at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital, before being appointed a senior resident in pathology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Research in Pathology and Medicine.
He gained a PhD from the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, University of London, and returned to Australia to become assistant-director of the Hall institute.
In 1932 he undertook a two-year fellowship to carry out research on viruses at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. Viruses had not been clearly visualised, but it was a new and exciting field and Burnet devoted the next 25 years of his life to it.
In 1944 he returned to Melbourne to become director of the Hall institute and professor of experimental medicine at the University of Melbourne. He soon established that many types of viruses existed, and studied how invisible virus particles attached themselves to the bacterial host cell and they grew inside it, finally bursting the cell and releasing progeny into the growth medium. He produced thirty-two papers on his work by 1937. Ahead of his time, he preceded by about a decade those who later used similar experiments to lay the foundations of microbial genetics, and thus indirectly of molecular biology.
Burnet learnt how to grow large quantities of a virus in fertile hens eggs and the present method of producing enough influenza virus to mass-produce vaccines is based on this work. He also carried out important studies into poliomyelitis and was the first to show that there was more than one strain, a crucial finding for the later development of a vaccine); many types of pox, including cowpox and mousepox; herpes; mumps; psittacosis; and numerous other viruses.
Apart from his main interest in how viruses reproduce themselves, Burnet examined specific problems from a broad biological and evolutionary viewpoint. Starting at his base in the ecology of human infectious diseases, he branched out into fields such as population genetics, human biology, cancer and ageing.
He also investigated theories of antibody formation as part of his virus work and published several monographs on the subject,. In his and Frank Fenner’s The Production of Antibodies (1949), he made the prediction that was to win him the 1960 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, arguing that if a foreign substance were introduced into an embryonic animal before its immune system had matured properly, the antigen would `trick’ the body into accepting the relevant molecule or molecules as `self’ rather than ‘not-self’. As a result, no antibody would be formed, even when the antigen was introduced later in life.
Burnet served on numerous national and international committees, chairing the (Australian) Radiation Advisory Committee (1955-59) and the (British) Commonwealth Foundation (1966-69). After winning the Nobel prize he worked extensively on promoting his blend of popular science, history, social and political theory and philosophy.
He was involved in a variety of scientific and public policy bodies both in Australia and overseas. He lobbied the Australian government to establish the Papua New Guinea Institute of Human Biology, served as first chair for the Commonwealth Foundation (1966-69), a Commonwealth initiative to foster interaction between the member countries’ elite, and he was also active in the World Health Organization. He was was one of the first high-profile figures in Australia to educate the public on the dangers of tobacco, and he appeared in an advertisement criticising the ethics of tobacco advertising.
He became president of the Australian Academy of Science in 1965 and as such was recognised by both government and the public as the leading scientist in Australia. The Academy’s Burnet Lecture and Medal is its highest award for biological sciences.
Burnet spoke and wrote widely on the topic of human biology after his retirement. In 1966 he presented the Boyer Lectures, focusing on human biology. Essays and books he published in his later life were sometimes controversial (one reviewer described his ideas about sociobiology as “extreme” and giving “a dismal, unappealing view of humanity”) and he often made pessimistic proclamations about the future of science. In 1966 he wrote an opinion article for The Lancet entitled “Men or Molecules?” in which he questioned the usefulness of molecular biology. Gustav Nossal subsequently described Burnet as having a love-hate affair with biochemistry.
Burnet was a fellow or honorary member of 30 international Academies of Sciences and received several honorary degrees. The Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research was named in his honour, as was the Burnet Clinical Research Unit of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in 1986.
1951: Knight Bachelor
1953: Elizabeth II Coronation Medal in 1953
1958: Order of Merit
1959: Copley Medal of the Royal Society, London
1952: Lasker award
1952: Emil von Behring prize
1953-57: President, International Association of Microbiological Societies
1857: President, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science
1965 – 69: President, Australian Academy of Science
1958: Order of Merit
1960: Australian of the Year
1961: Japanese Order of the Rising Sun
1969: Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
1978: Order of Australia
More by and about Frank Macfarlane Burnet
Biological Aspects of Infectious Disease, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Cambridge University Press, 1940
Viruses and Man, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Penguin Books, 1953
Principles of Animal Virology, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Academic Press, 1955
Enzyme, Antigen and Virus: a Study of Macromolecular Pattern in Action, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Cambridge University Press, 1956
The Production of Antibodies, Frank Macfarlane Burnet with Frank Fenner, (Monograph of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute), 1949
The Integrity of the Body: A Discussion of Modern Immunological Ideas, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Harvard University Press, 1962
Cellular Immunology (2 volumes), Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Melbourne University Press, 1969.
Immunological Surveillance, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Pergamon Press, 1970
Autoimmunity and Autoimmune Disease: a Survey for Physician or Biologist, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Medical and Technical Pub., 1972
Immunology:readings from Scientific American with Introductions and Additional Material Frank Macfarlane Burnet,Freeman, 1976
Immunology, Ageing and Cancer: Medical Aspects of Mutation and Selection, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Freeman, 1978
Changing Patterns: An Atypical Autobiography, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Elsevier, 1969
Australian Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, by Frank Fenner, http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/bsparcs/aasmemoirs/burnet.htm
Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Scientist and Thinker, Frank Fenner, University of Queensland Press, 1988
Burnet Institute, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, http://www.burnet.edu.au/home/general/history/macburnet
Burnet: a Life, Christopher Sexton, Oxford University Press, 1999
Australian Science and Heritage Centre, Centenaries of Australian Science, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, http://www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au/cent/1999Burn.html
Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, Frank Macfarlane Burnet Guide to Records, http://www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au/guides/burn/burn.htm