Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Vale Frank Fenner, Vanquisher of Smallpox

By Stephen Luntz

One of Australia’s greatest scientists, Professor Frank Fenner, passed away on 22 November 2010 after a short illness. He was 95.

Fenner studied science and medicine at the University of Adelaide before joining the Army Medical Corp. He was awarded an OBE for his work combating malaria in New Guinea.

Fenner first came to prominence when he, along with Macfarlane Burnet and Ian Clunies Ross, injected themselves with the myxoma virus to prove it was harmless to humans. The subsequent release of the virus controlled rabbit plagues for decades until resistance became widespread.

However, on a global scale Fenner’s most important contribution was as Chairman of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication. The rise of cities and improved transport caused smallpox to become a leading cause of death worldwide by the 16th century. Total mortality has been estimated as high as 500 million, with many more blinded or scarred.

Wealthy nations made great strides in eliminating smallpox around the turn of the 20th century, but in 1959, when the World Health Assembly decided to eliminate the disease two million people per year were dying from it.

Fenner helped rule out the theory that monkey populations were acting as a reservoir for the disease, demonstrating that eradication was possible. Intensive intervention, made possible by cooperation of governments across the world, saw the “ring vaccination” of populations around each outbreak.

In 1980 Fenner presented a report to the World Health Assembly announcing the eradication of the disease, confirming one of the greatest milestones in the extension and improvement of human life.

Fenner continued working through his involvement with the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University almost to his death, and was a long-term subscriber to Australasian Science.

Nobel Prize Laureate Prof Peter Doherty told Australasian Science: “This marks an end to an era in virology".