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BURNET, Frank Macfarlane OM AK KBE Kt (1899-1985)

BURNET, Sir Frank Macfarlane OM AK KBE Kt (1899-1985)

Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (Pegasus Dec 1960)

Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet (Pegasus Dec 1960)

Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet is one of The Geelong College's most eminent former students and the only Old Collegian to have been awarded a Nobel Prize. In another unique and illustrious distinction he became the first 'Australian of the Year' when that award was first introduced in 1960.

Born at Traralgon on 3 September 1899, Mac Burnet spent his early years there. His father was a bank manager and in 1909 the family was transferred to Terang where 'Mac' developed an interest in beetles and became, like Charles Darwin, an avid coleopterist - a beetle collector. This interest continued well into his adult years.

He won a scholarship to Geelong College and attended as a boarder from 10 February 1913 to December 1916. In 1914, he was awarded the Shannon Prize and, in 1915 in the lower Form VI his early academic prowess was revealed when he topped the English, History, Chemistry and Physics subjects for that year as well as winning the Boarders’ Senior Scripture Prize. This resulted in his declaration as dux of the Lower VI. It is noted in the school records of 1916 that Macfarlane Burnet was a member of the Debating Society and a ‘Librarian’. He is not listed in any sporting teams. The Macfarlane Burnet Laboratory at the College is named in his honour.

Describing his life at school he wrote in his autobiography, 'it was unthinkable that I should confess to having such an outlandish and inappropriate interest as beetles. No boarder at Geelong College could dream of being so far out.' He excelled academically and left at the end of 1916 as Dux of the School, winning the Old Collegians' Exit Scholarship and a residential scholarship to Ormond College at Melbourne University. Today, the only tangible evidence of his presence is his name, in the company of many others, engraved in gold on the Dux of the School Honour Board in Morrison Hall and in the naming of a Biology Laboratory.

After he left school 'Mac' Burnet studied Medicine at Melbourne University graduating in 1923. During his illustrious career he became one of the twentieth century's outstanding biologists. Based in Australia, he led international research in virology, epidemiology and immunology. Almost his entire professional career was spent within the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of which he was Director from 1944 to 1965. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1942 and won its Royal and Copley Medals. Macfarlane Burnet's work covered several fields including viral disease, with a special interest in influenza and tropical medicine. He had a continuing interest in immunology and in 1960 he shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Englishman, Professor Peter Medawar 'for the discovery of immunological tolerance'.

There are many entries in College magazines over the years which record the progress of his career. Two interesting examples follow:
Pegasus June 1945: 'Early on June 6 we were privileged to hear an instructive lecture from Professor F. Burnet, F.R.S., one of our Old Collegians, who has distinguished himself in the scientific world. Since the war he has been engaged in combating the dreaded tropical diseases of malaria and scrub typhus and it was on this interesting topic that his talk was based.'

Ad Astra in September 1965 reported: 'Professor Sir Macfarlane Burnet, OM, Kt, MD, PhD, Hon FRACP, FRCP, FRCP (Edin), FAA, FRS, has just retired after 21 years as Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a position in which he won fame, especially for his investigations of virus diseases. This retirement does not mean that Professor Burnet will give up working. His particular interest has shifted in recent years to immunology, on which he intends to write a book; and he is thinking ahead to the behavioural sciences and the application of computers to medicine. And of course cigarettes! 'Cut them out,' says the Professor. 'They are the worst menace to health there is.'

Sir Mac's daughter, Mrs Elizabeth Dexter, was interviewed in 1999. (Uni News 8 March 1999) 'He came home at six every night and after dinner he would read his scientific journals and sometimes vet my English essays! 'Mrs Dexter said that her father believed he could achieve all he wanted to in Victoria. 'He even declined a Chair at Harvard University because he wanted the family to grow up and be educated in Australia.'

Sir Gustov Nossal summed up Sir Mac's remarkable achievements when he nominated him for 'Australian of the Century'. 'Burnet comes out on the top of my list because of no fewer than four major triumphs. Through very early work on viruses which infect bacteria, he set the stage for the revolution in molecular genetics which now dominates medical science 75 years later. For 25 years from 1932, he was the world's greatest animal virologist, in classic microbe hunter mode. From 1937 to his retirement in 1965, he was the dominant figure in the burgeoning science of immunology, inventing a new theory explaining how the immune system worked in health and disease. This work has had practical outflow into areas as diverse as vaccines, organ transplants, auto-immune disorders and cancer therapies. For 25 years following his retirement he wrote no fewer than sixteen books ranging from sociology and philosophy to popular science and academic textbooks.'

In 2011, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet was inducted into the Old Geelong Collegians' Association (OGCA) Gallery of Notables at Geelong College.

Sources: Ad Astra December 1985; Carol Barnard - Ad Astra May 1999 p8.
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