Frank Macfarlane Burnet Biography (1899-1985)

immunologist, virologist

While working at the University of Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in the 1920s, Frank Macfarlane Burnet became interested in the study of viruses and bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria).That interest eventually led to two major and related accomplishments. The first of these was the development of a method for cultivating viruses in chicken embryos, an important technological step forward in the science of virology. The second accomplishment was the development of a theory that explains how an organism's body is able to distinguish between its own cells and those of another organism. For this research, Burnet was awarded a share of the 1960Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine (with Peter Brian Medawar).

Burnet was born in Traralgon, Victoria, Australia, on September 3, 1899. Hisfather was Frank Burnet, manager of the local bank in Traralgon, and his mother was the former Hadassah Pollock MacKay. As a child, Burnet developed an interest in nature, particularly in birds, butterflies, and beetles. He carriedover that interest when he entered Geelong College in Geelong, Victoria, where he majored in biology and medicine.

In 1917 Burnet continued his education at Ormond College of the University ofMelbourne, from which he received his bachelor of science degree in 1922 andthen, a year later, his M.D. degree. Burnet then took concurrent positions as resident pathologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and as researcher at the University of Melbourne's Hall Institute for Medical Research. In 1926 Burnet received a Beit fellowship that permitted him to spend a year in residence at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London. The work on viruses and bacteriophages that he carried out at Lister also earned him a Ph.D. from the University of London in 1927. At the conclusion of his studies in England in 1928, Burnet returned to Australia, where he became assistant director of the Hall Institute. He maintained his association with the institute forthe next thirty-seven years, becoming director there in 1944. In the same year he was appointed professor of experimental medicine at the University of Melbourne. During his first year back from England, in 1928, Burnet was also married to Edith Linda Druce, a schoolteacher. The Burnets had two daughters,Elizabeth and Deborah, and a son, Ian. When his first wife died in 1973, Burnet was married a second time, to Hazel Jenkin.

Burnet's early research covered a somewhat diverse variety of topics in virology. For example, he worked on the classification of viruses and bacteriophages , on the occurrence of psittacosis in Australian parrots, and on the epidemiology of herpes and poliomyelitis. His first major contribution to virologycame, however, during his year as a Rockefeller fellow at London's NationalInstitute for Medical Research from 1932 to 1933. There he developed a methodfor cultivating viruses in chicken embryos. The Burnet technique was an important breakthrough for virologists since viruses had been notoriously difficult to culture and maintain in the laboratory.

Over time, Burnet's work on viruses and bacteriophages led him to a different, but related, field of research, the vertebrate immune system. The fundamental question he attacked is one that had troubled biologists for years: how anorganism's body can tell the difference between "self" and "not-self." An organism's immune system is a crucial part of its internal hardware. It provides a mechanism for fighting off invasions by potentially harmful--and sometimes fatal--foreign organisms (antigens) such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The immune system is so efficient that it even recognizes and fights back against harmless invaders such as pollen and dust, resulting in allergic reactions.

Burnet was attracted to two aspects of the phenomenon of immunity. First, hewondered how an organism's body distinguishes between foreign invaders and components of its own body, the "self" versus "not-self" problem. That distinction is obviously critical, since if the body fails to recognize that difference, it may begin to attack its own cells and actually destroy itself. This phenomenon does in fact occur in relatively rare cases of autoimmune disorders.

The second question on which Burnet worked was how the immune system develops. The question is complicated by the fact that a healthy immune system is normally able to recognize and respond to an apparently endless variety of antigens, producing a specific chemical (antibody) to combat each antigen it encounters. According to one theory, these antibodies are present in an organism'sbody from birth, prior to birth, or an early age. A second theory suggestedthat antibodies are produced "on the spot" as they are needed and in responseto an attack by an antigen.

For more than two decades, Burnet worked on resolving these questions about the immune system. He eventually developed a complete and coherent explanationof the way the system develops in the embryo and beyond, how it develops theability to recognize its own cells as distinct from foreign cells, and how it carries with it from the very earliest stages the templates from which antibodies are produced. For this work, Burnet was awarded a share of the 1960 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Among the other honors he received werethe Royal Medal and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society (1947 and 1959, respectively) and the Order of Merit in 1958. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1947 and knighted by King George V in 1951.

Burnet retired from the Hall Institute in 1965, but continued his research activities. His late work was in the area of autoimmune disorders, cancer, andaging. He died of cancer in Melbourne on August 31, 1985. Burnet was a prolific writer, primarily of books on science and medicine, during his lifetime.

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