Birthday: September 3, 1899
Died At Age: 85
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Mac Burnet, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Macfarlane, F. M. Burnet
Born in: Traralgon
Famous as: Virologist & Noble Prize Laureate
Spouse/Ex-: Edith Linda Marston Druce (1928-1973), Hazel G. Jenkins (1976 till his death)
father: Frank Burnet
mother: Hadassah Burnet
children: Elizabeth and Deborah, Ian Burnet
Died on: August 31, 1985
place of death: Port Fairy
education: University of Melbourne, University of London, The Geelong College
Deemed to be the greatest scientist produced by Australia, Frank Macfarlane Burnet gave sixty years of his life to human science, discovering and researching human infectious diseases. Starting off with microbiology, he branched out into the fields of bacteriology, followed by virology and immunology. He pioneered in the study of autoimmune conditions, where a disease is caused by the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues, and application of ecological principles to viral diseases. His initial experiments and work paved way for developments in various medical areas, such as vaccines, tissue transplantation, and monoclonal antibody and associated therapies. This scientific genius gained recognition globally with several Australian and international awards to his credit, most importantly the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. His work on virus growing processes in hen’s eggs still serves as the basis for producing vaccines for influenza in the modern times. His contributions to Australian science won him the title of the first Australian of the Year. Apart from making great discoveries and performing experiments, he also wrote a large number of books and delivered lectures on various problem areas of human biology and human affairs, cancer and ageing.
Childhood & Early Life
Frank Macfarlane Burnet was born on September 3, 1899 in Traralgon, eastern Victoria, as the second of seven kids, to Scottish emigrants Frank Burnet and Hadassah Burnet.
He went to state schools in Traralgon and Terang, before moving to boarder Geelong College on full scholarship in 1913.
He graduated in 1916 and completed his Bachelors in Medicine and Surgery from Ormond College, University of Melbourne, on a residential scholarship, in 1922.
In 1923, he started researching on the agglutinin reactions in typhoid fever at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. He was also working as a research pathologist at Royal Melbourne Hospital.
In 1924, he obtained his doctorate degree in medicine and continued his research in bacteriology at Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London, during 1925-27, through the Beit Fellowship.
He completed his PhD in the research conducted in bacteriophages, a virus that affects bacteria, from the University of London, in 1928.
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Upon his return to Melbourne in 1928, he was appointed as assistant director of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, by director Dr. Charles Kellaway, and carried out researches in staphylococcal toxins, besides his ongoing bacteriophages study.
In 1932, he took a two-year leave and went to the world-leading National Institute for Medical Research, London, to conduct research on virus. He discovered the influenza virus and developed a chick-embryo technique for virus culture.
Despite being offered a permanent position at the Institute by its director, Sir Henry Dale, he returned to Melbourne in 1934, to resume his research on virology.
In 1940, he released his first book ‘Biological Aspects of Infectious Disease’, which influenced the biological world and was published in Japanese, German, Italian and Spanish.
In order to prevent the potential outbreak of influenza pandemic during World War II, he started working towards producing a vaccine for this deadly disease.
After Sir Charles Kellaway went to work as the Director of Wellcome Foundation, London, he became the Director of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, in 1944, rejecting a chair offered at the Harvard University.
After retiring from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in 1965, he continued to give guest lectures at the University of Melbourne’s microbiology department and write on virology, immunology, human biology, philosophy and ethics.
He was associated with various national and international committees during his later life, besides serving as the chairman of Australian Radiation Advisory Committee (1955-59) and British Commonwealth Foundation (1966-69).
He penned several books on immunology and virology, like ‘Virus as Organism’, ‘Viruses and Man’, ‘The Clonal Selection Theory of Acquired Immunity’, and ‘Immunological Surveillance’.
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In 1934, he discovered the causal organisms of psittacosis and Q fever as Rickettsia burnetii, and performed studies on poliovirus, herpes simplex virus, and epidemiology.
In 1956, his increased interest in Niels Kaj Jerne’s natural selection hypothesis led to the development of clonal selection, thus forming one of the concepts of immunology, known as Burnet’s clonal selection theory.
Awards & Achievements
The Royal Society honored him with the Royal Medal in 1947 and Copley Medal in 1959, for his contribution in the field of virology.
He received the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, in 1952, and the Order of Merit at the Queen’s Birthday Honors, in 1958.
In 1960, he was honored with the prestigious Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine shared with Sir Peter Medawar, for discovering acquired immunological tolerance, a concept which led to the invention of tissue transplantation.
He received the Australian of the Year award in 1960 and a Gold and Silver Star from the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun in 1961.
At the 1969 New Year Honors, he became a recipient of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
He received the Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal in 1977 and became the fourth person to be knighted by the Order of Australia in 1978.
He served as the President at the International Association of Microbiological Societies (1953-57), Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1957), and Australian Academy of Science (1955-59).
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He obtained ten honorary degrees from various esteemed universities and colleges, including Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, Hahnemann Medical College, Medical University of South Carolina, and University of Melbourne.
Personal Life & Legacy
He got engaged to Edith Linda Marston Druce, while working in London, and married her in 1928, upon his return to Australia. The couple had one son and two daughters – Ian Burnet, Elizabeth and Deborah. In 1973, his wife Linda died of lymphoid leukemia, affecting the lymphocyte cells, on which he had been conducting his research.
In 1976, he married widowed singer, Hazel Gertrude Jenkin, who had been working as a voluntary librarian at Ormond College’s microbiology department.
He was operated for colorectal cancer in November 1984 and made a good recovery, but fell ill again with secondary lesions, affecting his thorax and legs, and died on August 31, 1985 at Port Fairy.
The Government of Australia honored him with a state funeral, after which he was laid to rest at Tower Hill Cemetery, near Port Fairy.
In 1975, Australia Post released a 33-cent stamp, as an honor of his research work on immunology.
As a tribute to Burnet, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute named the Burnet Clinical Research Unit in 1986 and introduced the Burnet Prize in 1987, which is awarded to an exceptional early-career scientist annually.
The 45-cent stamp with Burnet and his fellow graduate Jean Macnamara was among the four Australian stamps released in 1995 commemorating seven Australian medical scientists.
As part of his centenary birth celebrations, his statue was erected in Franklin Street, Traralgon, in 1999.
Under his able guidance, various notable virologists, like Gordon Ada, Stephen Fazekas de St. Groth, Alick Isaacs, and Frank Fenner contributed in different areas, such as Murray Valley encephalitis, poxviruses, influenza and herpes.