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Frank Fenner Legacy

Frank Fenner and the Foundation: Who was Frank Fenner?

Frank Fenner (1914–2010) is best remembered for two major scientific achievements that have reduced human suffering and benefited human welfare in countless ways: his contribution to the eradication of smallpox, and his studies on myxomatosis, which were so important for the control of the rabbit population in Australia.

However, his contributions to science and humanity went well beyond those milestones. As a young doctor and medical student he served in the Australian Army Medical Corps during World War II, earning an MBE for his work in developing strategies to protect Australian troops from malaria in New Guinea. His war service was followed by several years in virology research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, which led to key developments in the understanding of the pathogenesis of viral diseases. In 1949, he was appointed foundation Professor of Microbiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where he was able to pursue his studies on the myxoma virus and build a department that included many names that would later become famous in the world of virology. Frank became Director of the JCSMR in 1967.

Frank became increasingly interested in environmental issues during the 1960s, and developed the deep conviction that there is an urgent need for greatly improved understanding – throughout the community − of the human place in nature and of the processes of life that underpin our existence. In the early 1970s, while Director of the JCSMR, he gave crucial support to preparatory work for the Hong Kong Human Ecology project, which was later adopted by UNESCO.

In 1969 he became chair of a committee advocating the establishment at ANU of a Centre for Natural Resources, and in 1973 became Foundation Director of the University’s Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (now the Fenner School for Environment and Society). Once appointed, Frank immediately set about bringing together a team of specialists in economics, systems analysis, hydrology, ecology and human ecology, making CRES a unique academic institution.

From the mid-1960s onwards, Frank played a pivotal role in the development of Human Ecology as an academic discipline at ANU. There was considerable opposition to this move from established areas of specialism, and Human Ecology would probably not have found a place in teaching and research for another 30 or more years were it not for his support. It is now firmly established, appropriately, in the Fenner School for Environment and Society.

During this phase of Frank’s career he served on a many national committees concerned with environmental matters, including the Academy of Science’s Flora and Fauna Committee from 1967 to 1974 (chair), the Fauna Committee, 1974–81; the Standing Committee on National Parks and Conservation, 1970–81 (chair, 1970–72); as well as the National Committee for SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment), 1971–78 (chair); the Standing Committee on the Environment, 1970–78; and the National Committee for the Environment, 1979–82. He was also vice-president of the Australian Conservation Foundation (1971–73), a member of the Senior Scientific Advisory Board of the UN Environment Programme (1978–82), Editor-in-chief of SCOPE publications from 1977 to 1980, and an ex officio member of its Executive Committee.

In 1977 he was appointed the chair of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication, which culminated in his announcement of the eradication of the disease to the World Health Organisation's Assembly in Geneva in 1980, one of his proudest moments.

Frank retired from formal academic work in 1979 but this was just the beginning of nearly 30 years as Emeritus Professor and Visiting Scientist at the JCSMR, a time that was spent encouraging young scientists, updating his textbooks on virology and writing histories of the JCSMR, the Australian Academy of Science and also his autobiography and biography of his father.

Frank saw clearly the urgent need for much better understanding, throughout the community, of the findings of the life sciences, especially as they have bearing on the wellbeing of humankind and the biosphere. From the 1960s onwards Frank was actively involved in, and strongly supported, a number of community projects based on this view. In particular, he made substantial annual donations to the Nature and Society Forum (NSF), which he joined in 1992 and of which he was elected Patron in 1998 and was an active participant until his death. NSF was established in 1991 as a community-based group to promote scientific understanding across the community of the ecological and health issues that face our society today.

Frank Fenner was probably the most highly awarded and decorated Australian scientist of the last 100 years, but curiously is not really well known. In 2006 the president of the Australian Academy of Science called him 'the doyen of virology and one of the greatest scientists Australia has produced'. You can read more from the Australian Academy of Science here. In an interview in 2003, Australia's Chief Medical Officer said 'I think Frank Fenner should be up there with those Australian scientists who've achieved Nobel Prizes. His work for humanity has been of that order'.

To find out more about this remarkable man, Dr Fred Murphy's tribute is a good place to start. [go to]. Or you could read Dr Ann Moyal's Preface to Fenner's autobiography [go to] as a brief introduction to his life and work.

The Frank Fenner Foundation

Establishing the Frank Fenner Foundation as a lasting memorial to Professor Frank Fenner, recognising his lifelong commitment to human health and the health of the natural environment, is the next step to continuing his vision for healthy people growing on a healthy planet.