Age shall not weary him
At 91 years of age, Professor Frank Fenner has earned the right to put his feet up and smell the roses. He still does the latter, but retirement is not a word that figures in his vocabulary.
Nature, nurture and chance. They're three words that have characterised the life of one of Australia's most celebrated scientists, and arguably all humans.
The genes you inherit, your upbringing, and pure luck all come into play to determine our life's path, according to Professor Frank Fenner, one of the most highly decorated and awarded Australian scientists of the 20th century.
Credited worldwide for his role in eradicating smallpox and controlling Australia's rabbit plague with the introduction of myxomatosis, Professor Fenner returned last August to his alma mater, the University of Adelaide, to launch his memoirs.
The book--Nature, Nurture and Chance: The Lives of Frank and Charles Fenner--provides an insight into a fascinating career and the events and people who shaped his life, including his late father, Charles, a distinguished scientist in his own right as well as a senior administrator in the South Australian Department of Education.
In launching the book, the SA Minister for Education Jane Lomax-Smith described it as "an inspiration for young people, aspiring scientists and those wanting to make a difference."
"Many people think that scientists cannot write in an engaging, approachable manner, but I could not put this book down," Ms Lomax-Smith said. "It's a terrific read."
And why wouldn't it be? It documents a life studded with international achievements in combating pox viruses and a highly distinguished career as a microbiologist.
From 1949, when he was awarded the David Syme Research Prize for his work on mousepox, through to his pioneering work in virology and microbiology, Professor Fenner has picked up a glittering array of scientific honours.
These include the Mueller and Matthew Flinders Medals (1964 and 1967), the Britannica Australia Award for Medicine (1967), the Burnet Medal (1985), the Prime Minister's Prize for Science (2002), and, internationally, the highly prestigious Japan Prize (1988), the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London (1995) and the Albert Einstein World Award for Science (2000).
All this, for a researcher who never had time to study for a PhD.
At 91, Professor Fenner continues to make a daily contribution to science. He is a Visiting Fellow of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU in Canberra.
But it was at the University of Adelaide where this "doyen of virology" made a decision that changed his life irrevocably.
He initially enrolled in science, intending to follow his father, Charles, and major in geology. But these were the days before the minerals boom and jobs were scarce for geologists.
"My father advised me to go into medicine. He said it would open up so many opportunities for me--physician, pathologist, surgeon, anaesthetist, psychiatrist, even research worker. The possibilities were endless. So I accepted his advice."
Professor Fenner graduated with an MBBS from the University of Adelaide in 1938 and was awarded the degree of MD in 1942 for his papers on the physical anthropology of the Australian Aborigines.
He served in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps from 1940-46 and in 1945 was awarded an MBE for his work on malaria control in Papua New Guinea.
After the war, Professor Fenner worked with Macfarlane Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. "At the time, Burnet was the outstanding figure in infectious disease research in Australia," Professor Fenner recalled. "I still regard him as the most original thinker I have ever met in my career."
Professor Fenner then seized an opportunity to work in New York for a year with Dr Rene Dubos at the Rockefeller Institute.
Returning to Australia in 1949, he was appointed Professor of Microbiology at the new John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU. This led to his becoming Director of the John Curtin School from 1967 - 73 and then Director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the ANU before his "retirement" in 1979.
The defining moment of his life was on May 8, 1980, when he stood up in front of the World Health Assembly and declared that smallpox had been eradicated globally.
"It was an amazing day--one that stands out in my memory very clearly."
But with characteristic modesty, he credits many of his achievements to team work, whether with other scientists, or the most enduring partnership of his life--his late wife, Bobbie.
"I think two things--besides nurture and nature--really contribute to a good life: the first is a happy marriage and the second is to pursue work that fulfils your expectations. I've been incredibly lucky in both respects," he said. ■
Story Candy Gibson