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Biographical entry Burnet, Sir Frank MacFarlane (1899 - 1985)

OM 1958; Kt 1951; KBE 1969; AK 1978; FRS 1942; Hon FRCS 1969; MB ChB 1922; MD Melbourne 1923; PhD 1928; FRCP 1953; FRACP; Hon DSc Cambridge 1946; Hon DSc Oxford 1968.

3 September 1899
Traralgon, Victoria, Australia
31 August 1985
Research scientist


Frank Macfarlane Burnet was born at Traralgon, Victoria, Australia, on 3 September 1899. He was educated at Geelong College and Melbourne University, where he graduated MB ChB in 1922 and proceeded to his MD the next year. In 1926 he came to England for a year as Beit Fellow, working at the Lister Institute. In 1938 he became assistant director at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. Many workers from the Institute visited Britain, but soon Burnet's reputation was such that the flow became reversed. It was instantaneously recognised that he had created an important centre of knowledge in the Antipodes and many workers from other countries made the journey to Melbourne.

He was a pioneer in the early days of research on bacteriophages. He was the first to show that there were several types of poliomyelitis virus and he pointed out the nature of the causative organism of Q-fever, now known, after him, as Rickettsia burneti.

From 1932 to 1933 he was in England again, working with Henry Dale at the National Institute of Medical Research. At that time the human strain of influenza virus was being extensively studied, and he advanced the technique of virus culture on egg embryo on his return to Australia. During the second world war one of the pre-occupations was to try to produce a truly effective influenza vaccine, which, to his great regret, he failed to do. He had, however, many triumphs, notably in his work on herpes simplex, psittacosis and scrub typhus. His other important field of investigation, immunology, led to his concept of "clonal selection" and into wider fields of genetics, epidemiology and ecology. These had wide clinical applications, embracing new theories on ageing and on neoplasia, some still to be substantiated.

In 1944 he became director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute where he had spent most of his working life and was appointed Professor of Experimental Medicine at the University of Melbourne. On his retirement in 1965 he was granted an Emeritus Chair.

Among the numerous honours which he received were FRS in 1942, with a medal in 1947, a Knighthood in 1951, the OM in 1958, the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine shared with Sir Peter Medawar in 1960 "for the discovery of immunological tolerance", KBE in 1969 and Knight of the Order of Australia in 1978. He was elected FRCP in 1953 and made Honorary FRCS in 1969. He was also an Honorary Doctor of Science of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He was Croonian Lecturer at the Royal Society in 1950.

Burnet was one of the century's greatest biomedical scientists. He was contemplative, almost solitary, but with a genius for "lateral thinking", so that he immediately perceived the value of theories and advances in fields other than his own, and incorporated them into his researches. This involved wide reading, and his own numerous publications ranged from the severely technical to the more popular, to be read with advantage by those in other disciplines. Inevitably he found himself involved in duties outside his immediate work. He lectured widely in the United States, was Chairman of the National Radiation Advisory Committee for Australia, from 1965 to 1969 was President of the Australian Academy of Science, and from 1966 to 1969 was Chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation.

He married first in 1928, Linda Druce, who died in 1973. They had one son and two daughters. In 1976 he married Hazel Foletta.

He died on 31 August 1985, three days before his eighty-fifth birthday.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 2 September 1985; Lancet 1985, 2, 620; Brit med J 1985, 291, 747].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England