I spoke in Parliament on Thursday about the death of Professor Frank Fenner.
Professor Frank Fenner
25 November 2010
I wish to speak today on the loss of Emeritus Professor Frank Fenner, the audacity he demonstrated throughout his life and the monumental contributions he made to Australia and the world. A distinguished Australian microbiologist, he passed at the age of 95. His legacy has been cemented by years of advocacy regarding public health and his successes in various theatres of medical and scientific life. Spanning virology, immunology and microbiology, his battles against virulent pathogens in the name of science and humanity are world renowned, including his work on the World War II battlefields of Egypt and Papua New Guinea in the Australian Army Medical Corps where virtually he alone was equipped with crucial life-saving knowledge regarding the malaria virus.
Underpinning his work were strong values and principles and his promotion of mass vaccinations was directly related to his concern for public health. The active engagement he consistently showed with his research reached exceptional levels. The account of him injecting himself and his colleagues with enough myxoma virus to kill up to 1,000 rabbits in order to prove its benign effects on humans is legendary. The virus escaped in the early 1950s and killed millions of rabbits, alleviating the devastation the pests had caused to the agricultural industry. It coincided, however, with an outbreak of encephalitis and so they acted to put the public’s mind at ease by proving the disease was unrelated and to respond to the local hospital manager’s challenge that they do so if they were so confident of that fact.
When he became director in 1967 of the John Curtin School of Medical Research here in Canberra, Professor Fenner was unwilling to continue scientific research. He wished to be thoroughly involved in the process, not through students and not through assistants. As he asserted in a radio interview:
I am temperamentally unable to do research without being personally involved, hands-on at the bench.
From genetics at a molecular level to epidemiology, Professor Fenner’s work has provided the foundations for a plethora of research and knowledge. Even though there has been a sharp fall from the mortality rate of 99 per cent in the rabbit population since the release of the myxoma virus, the research carried out pertaining to changes in virulence provided about the only example of an extended period of study on genetic resistance and continues to be a reference for modern genetic understanding.
Professor Fenner’s work has been and continues to be duly acknowledged. His death has made international headlines and the awards he has received over the years evoke a sense of a decorated veteran or war hero. He was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 1945 following his work combating malaria, and he was awarded the Britannica Australia Award for Medicine, as well as the Prime Minister’s science prize in 2002. The World Health Organisation medal of 1988, however, is a veritable symbol of Professor Fenner’s outstanding accomplishments and contribution to the world. He led the battle against the devastating smallpox virus as chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication. In an interview with Peter Thompson he said that announcing to the UN’s World Health Assembly in 1980 the eradication of the virus, a monumental victory and honour, was his proudest moment.
Professor Fenner had been an important voice on matters ranging from health to the environment to the fate of humankind. He was strongly interested in the consequences of health impacts in the environment and as foundation director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the ANU, where he worked until his retirement in 1979, he advocated the development of a socially and environmentally sustainable population. His last interview with the Australian is not only thought-provoking but an impetus for further research and work. His assertion that humankind was facing imminent extinction stemmed from his dismay at the inaction regarding climate change and the delays in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. As a pioneer and fighter for humanity, the absence of a strong and rousing response to the environmental threats to our existence was understandably disappointing to him.
However, I relate to the words of Stephen Boyden, a long-time friend of Professor Fenner. He said:
Frank may be right, but some of us still harbour the hope that there will come about an awareness of the situation and, as a result, the revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability.
I believe we are on the cusp of such revolutionary changes and that by taking action, acknowledging the science and looking out for the future health of Australia this government can assist in avoiding the imminent extermination that Professor Fenner predicted.
His insight and legacy, however, is of far-reaching value. Professor Fenner’s legacy lives on in the plethora of books he has written, the students he has taught and the words of warning about caring for the world in which we live and for the health of one another. In response to his colossal achievements, he modestly replied, ‘You just have to live a long time.’
In closing, on his last day of sittings, I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge my staff—Rick Youssef, Lyndell Tutty, Shobaz Kandola, Alex Cubis and Ruth Stanfield—and three hardworking volunteers in my office—Damien Hickman, Sigourney Irvine and Emily Murray. To each of them I say, ‘I literally could not have done it without you'.
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