Frank Macfarlane Burnet was born in Traralgon, Victoria. He was the second of seven children of the local manager of the Colonial Bank. During his childhood, spent in the Australian countryside, the young Mac, always so styled because his father was also Frank, developed a keen interest in beetle-collecting, an avocation that may have been an early sign of an abiding commitment to biology. The local clergyman, noting the lad's intelligence and avid appetite for books, suggested a secondary education at Geelong College, which meant becoming a boarder. These were not happy years for the shy and already somewhat solitary youngster, who suffered from his ineptitude at sport and his incapacity to relate to the rough and tumble ways of his schoolmates. Still, academic study went well, and Burnet had no difficulty in winning a scholarship to the University of Melbourne where he started medicine in 1917.
The independent character of his thinking manifested itself over this time and is preserved in his extensive diaries. He obviously thought deeply about the great issues of the day, and developed a fairly aggressive atheism. Not comfortable with members of the opposite sex, he devoted most of his time to study, to long rambles in his beloved Australian bush, and occasional sallies to the cinema or a play. He graduated in 1922, second in a remarkable year that also included three other outstanding future leaders who were to leave an indelible mark on the profession: Sir Roy Cameron, the great pathologist, and two of the pioneers of modern paediatrics, Dame Kate Campbell and Dame Jean Macnamara. Burnet's excellent pass gained him entry to the Melbourne Hospital as a resident where he developed an interest in neurology. He was at first deeply disappointed not to gain a clinical registrar's post which might have trained him to be an 'honest-to-God' doctor. His mentors had evidently recognised that Burnet might be more suited to laboratory than to clinical work, so he became pathology registrar instead. At that time (1923) the Hospital's pathology laboratories were still closely integrated with The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute which had recently appointed a brilliant young new director, Dr Charles Kellaway. Several stellar figures were working there around that time, including Neil Hamilton Fairley, Harold Dew and Gordon Cameron, but typically Burnet espoused a unique and independent research interest. He began to study bacteriophages, which, he felt certain, were truly living entities and perhaps the simplest of all life forms. Kellaway sent Burnet for two stints in the United Kingdom, the first from 1926 to 1928 with CJ Martin at the Lister Institute where he obtained his PhD, and the second from 1932 to 1933 to Sir Henry Dale at the National Institute for Medical Research where he developed his interest in influenza virus. Apart from these periods, the whole of Burnet's sixty years of extraordinary creativity were spent in Melbourne within the Hall Institute, the University and the Hospital. He was appointed assistant director of the Hall Institute in 1928, director in 1944, and after his retirement in 1965 he took up an invitation of the late Professor Sydney D Rubbo to a visiting professorship within the department of microbiology of the University of Melbourne, a post he held till 1978.
Burnet married Linda Druce in 1928. It was to prove a long and happy marriage, with a large proportion of Lady Burnet's high intelligence and energy devoted to promoting Sir Macfarlane's work, career and, in the later years, extensive social and societal responsibilities. The Burnets had three children, Elizabeth, Ian and (the late) Deborah. Lady Burnet died in 1973. In 1976 Sir Macfarlane married Mrs Hazel Jenkin.
Burnet's scientific career falls naturally into four phases: 1923 to 44; 1944 to 57; 1957 to 65; and 1965 to 85. The first phase already marks Burnet as a most unusual microbe-hunter. He read the work of d'Herell and Twort on bacteriophages, started himself on the path of investigating them, and quickly made three important discoveries. He found that the characteristic lytic plaques that these 'bacteria-eating' viruses could make in a bacterial lawn could vary in size and shape, a characteristic which Burnet correctly ascribed to mutation. He described one-step growth curves: the phage would enter a bacterium, go through an 'eclipse' phase when no phage could be found, and burst out as a sudden emergence of about one hundred phages. This convinced Burnet that phages, though one could not see them, were truly living entities, in fact viruses. He also showed that the virus could sometimes go underground, integrating and replicating with the genetic machinery of the host bacterium, only to burst out at some later time when the bacterium was shocked, e.g. by ultra-violet irradiation. These discoveries were to be developed further by Luria and Delbruck and formed the foundation for the later revolution in molecular biology and genetic engineering.
Burnet's work in animal virology stands in the mainstream of the great tradition of microbe-hunting handed down from Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. To isolate new viruses was difficult, dangerous and essential for understanding and control. He discovered new ways of isolating and growing the influenza virus; he saw that there were multiple serotypes of the poliomyelitis virus, a finding essential for later vaccine development; he isolated the causative organisms of Q fever and scrub typhus; he worked on herpes simplex and on psittacosis virus. This microbe-hunting alone would have merited an international reputation, but for Burnet the isolation of a virus was the beginning, not the end, of the story. Study of how the virus divided inside cells revealed many of the most basic secrets of biological organisation; and study of how the virus spread through populations despite host immune defences provoked new views of the natural history and biology of infectious diseases. When Burnet was elected to the Royal Society in 1942, he was already among the world's most distinguished animal virologists.
When Burnet took over from Kellaway as Director of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (and was made Professor of Experimental Medicine with the University of Melbourne), World War II was raging and the fear of a repeat of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic was uppermost in Burnet's mind. He decided to convert practically the whole Institute to the biology and biochemistry of viruses, with the largest single effort going into attempts to produce a live, attenuated anti-influenza vaccine. The failure to come up with significant protection counts as one of the few major frustrations in an extraordinary scientific life. Still, the decision to concentrate on viruses produced some stunning successes. Burnet himself discovered recombination among animal viruses and the basic rules by which viruses attach to and elute from host cells. Gottschalk discovered influenza neuraminidase and thus opened thee world of glycoproteins, Ada found that influenza was an RNA virus. Anderson and French isolated Murray Valley encephalitis and Fenner was launched on his spectacular career of understanding the pox viruses. Isaacs began his search for interferon. Burnet proved himself to be an inspiring research leader.
Ever since his investigation of the Bundaberg disaster in 1929, when twelve children died after receiving diphtheria vaccine contaminated by staphyloccocal toxin, Burnet had a deep interest in immunology and particularly in the basis of antibody production. He did a certain amount of work on kinetics of anti-toxin production, but most of his interest was theoretical. He was deeply convinced that the fashionable 'direct template' theory of antibody production was wrong. Two specific questions concerned him most. How does the immune system distinguish self from non-self? How can one animal make such a vast array of specific antibodies, all different? This speculative work led to the prediction of the phenomenon of immunological tolerance in 1949 (and thus to the Nobel Prize); and the articulation of the clonal selection theory of antibody formation in 1957. Burnet considered the latter by far the most important piece of work of his life. In 1957, Burnet switched the work of the Institute largely over to immunology. The gradual validation of the theory over the next ten to fifteen years gave him immense satisfaction, particularly in the field of autoimmune diseases. Encouraged by Wood and Mackay, he began to re-visit the hospital ward regularly, and his contributions to the Friday morning grand rounds constituted a highlight of the Hall Institute's working week. Together with Holmes, he personally made a major contribution to the understanding of autoimmune diseases in certain New Zealand-derived strains of mice.
Never afraid to speak out on public issues, Burnet devoted himself entirely to lecturing and writing after his retirement, from his new base within the University of Melbourne. A surprising harvest of sixteen books, about one a year, came from this period. The unique blend of science, history, sociology, and philosophy drew on his whole lifetime's experience. To this work, as to his science, Burnet brought the full spectrum of his gifts: originality, intuition, a naive but total honesty, conceptual breadth, daring and wisdom. His views were not always popular, for example his gloomy prognostication that a cancer cure was impossible, and his frankly sill scepticism about the importance of molecular biology; but he felt he had earned the right to speak out with conviction, avoiding the opportunism which often shades expressed opinions. It is probable that this lack of political nous made him a less influential person than he might otherwise have been in the practical realm.
It is doubtful whether any Australian, before or since, has been or will be so extensively honoured. In the civil sphere, he most treasured his Order of Merit, bestowed personally by the Queen in 1958. To his regular Knighthood in 1951 were added a KBE in 1969 and the Australian honour AK in 1978. From the academic peer group, he received numerous honorary doctorates, fellowships of learned academies, named lectureships and Australian and foreign prizes. He particularly valued his Royal and Copley Medals of the Royal Society, his presidency of the Australian Academy of Science and his Emil von Behring Prize from Germany. The ultimate recognition, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, came in 1960, shared with Peter Medawar, for their separate contributions to the discovery of immunological tolerance.
Burnet also did his fair share of committee work in the national and international spheres.
Internationally, he was a member of the World Health Organization's advisory committee on medical research; chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation; and a key adviser on medical matters to Papua New Guinea. Nationally, apart from the Academy, he worked hard for the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Radiation Advisory Committee. He was always accessible to the media and featured regularly in newspapers, radio and television.
Not given to self-deprecation, Burnet termed himself 'the last of the great amateurs' in science. He admired Charles Darwin and saw himself more as part of the great naturalist tradition of scholarship rather than as a technology-dependent or grossly reductionist scientist. He also admitted (and, I think, regretted) that he did not have the lightening-fast analytical mind characteristic of some of the great scientists of his day, say a Crick or a Lederberg. Yet he achieved so much more than many who were 'cleverer' than he in the conventional sense. The qualities that sustained his protean creativity included a rare capacity for lateral thinking, a wide and disciplined reading of the literature, and a fierce desire to extract general truths from particular findings.
He had a single-minded devotion to science, a true flame in his breast for the search of truth. In earlier years, his natural shyness and genuine lack of interest in the trivia of daily life gave his personality a rather stern cast, well-captured in the portrait by Clifton Pugh, which hangs in the Hall Institute. After the Nobel Prize he mellowed a great deal, and though his self-absorption never disappeared, he became more comfortable with people and, while utterly disdainful of small talk, he was a fascinating companion when any serious topic was under discussion. I have had the privilege of reading the manuscript of Christopher Sexton's definitive biography of this great Australian. I can confidently state that any fellow of the College who has been intrigued by this brief glimpse at Australia's foremost medical scientist would find great joy and satisfaction in the longer work.
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