While visiting the Australian National University in Canberra recently, I noticed in the lobby outside their Club dining room, a most interesting tapestry. Interesting, because it looked like a colourised electron micrograph (it depicts myxomavirus), and because it had a plaque beneath it commemorating their own Professor Frank Fenner. I was familiar with him because he authored an extremely useful book – Medical Virology – which I had used for educating myself and for teaching; I was also aware that he was an extremely eminent poxvirologist who had been active in the field for decades – and was still working despite having retired in 1979.
And then today I heard that he had died this week, at the age of 95.
Virology is still a young field, as I discover while trying to research its history for my sabbatical project: the concept dates only from 1898; only a couple of generations of scientists have been active in this field since it started – and Frank Fenner probably overlapped with nearly all of them. He was born in 1914, which meant he was in at the morning of virology as we know it, while many of the first practitioners were still around – and he stayed active until very recently, when the science had changed almost out of all recognition. He will be missed.
I am sharing this message that was sent out by the Director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU, where Fenner worked as an Emeritus Professor, as it is probably the best short account of his life.
“It is with great sadness that I communicate to you the passing of Professor Frank Fenner.
Frank John Fenner AC, CMG, MBE, FRS, FAA (born 21 December 1914, died 22 November 2010) was an Australian scientist with a distinguished career in the field of virology. His two greatest achievements are cited as overseeing the eradication of smallpox during his term as Chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication, and the control of Australia’s rabbit plague through the introduction of myxoma virus.
Professor Fenner was Director of the John Curtin School from 1967 to 1973. During this time he was also Chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication. In 1973 Professor Fenner was appointed to set up the new Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University (ANU). He held the position of Director until 1979.
Professor Fenner has been elected a fellow of numerous faculties and academies, including Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1954), Fellow of the Royal Society (1958), and Foreign Associate of the United States National Academy of Sciences (1977). During his career Professor Fenner received many awards. Among these are the Britannica Australia Award for Medicine (1967), the Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science Medal (1980), the World Health Organization Medal (1988), the Japan Prize (1988), the Senior Australian Achiever of the Year (1999), the Albert Einstein World Award for Science (2000), and the Prime Minister’s Science Prize (2002).
A man of decisive scientific action and strong opinions, Professor Fenner’s last interview with The Australian is extremely thought provoking and can be found here:
A summary of Frank’s remarkable career can be found here:
The last public recognition of Professor Frank Fenner’s accomplishments occurred here at JCSMR during the First International Meeting on Translational Medicine earlier this month: On 1 November 2010 Professor Fenner received a standing ovation by world leaders in academic medicine during the opening of the Conference and on 2 November 2010 he was recognized by the Conference as he and Sir Gus Nossal stood by their portraits, which hang side by side at the National Portrait Gallery. A picture of Professor Fenner at JCSMR taken on 1 November 2010 next to Gus Nossal is attached.
Further notices will be sent with information regarding Professor Fenner as plans to honor his accomplishments evolve.
With best regards,
Professor Julio Licinio
Director John Curtin School of Medical Research
The Australian National University
Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia ”
Thanks to Bertram Jacobs of ASU for sharing this with me.