Macfarlane Burnet

Macfarlane Burnet Biography

Doctor, Scientist, Biologist (1899–1985)
Macfarlane Burnet was an Australian physician and researcher who made groundbreaking discoveries in the fields of immunology and virology.


Born on September 3, 1899, Australian physician/medical researcher Macfarlane Burnet earned his doctorate at the University of London. He made inroads in understanding viral infections and led groundbreaking work in understanding human immunology, delineating the relationship between antibodies and antigens. Burnet won the Nobel Prize in 1960. He died on August 31, 1985, in Melbourne, Australia.

Early Life and Education

Born in the small town of Traralgon, Australia, on September 3, 1899, famed physician and biologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet made great advances in the fields of immunology and virology. The son of a bank manager, Burnet grew up in Traralgon and attended state schools before enrolling at Geelong College. He later attended the University of Melbourne, where he earned bachelor and master degrees in science in 1922. The following year, Burnet received his doctorate in medicine from the University of London.

Also in 1923, Burnet began working at the University of Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Around the same time, he served as a resident pathologist at Melbourne Hospital. In the 1920s and early '30s, Burnet spent time studying and conducting research in England at various organizations, including the Lister Institute and the National Institute for Medical Research.

Nobel Prize Win

During his career, Macfarlane Burnet studied the viruses that cause polio and influenza, among others, and helped develop a flu vaccine in Australia using a technique that employed fertilized chicken eggs. Burnet was one of the scientists to identify the organism responsible for Q fever, a disease that struck slaughterhouse workers, and was among those to discover the virus that causes Murray Valley encephalitis. He also wrote numerous works on virology and immunology, including Virus as Organism: Evolutionary and Ecological Aspects of Some Human Virus Diseases (1940).

In 1960, Burnet won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He received this prestigious honor "for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance," according to the Nobel Prize website. Burnet had developed his own ideas regarding human immune responses and the production of antibodies, theorizing that a vertebrate organism can usually tell "self"—its own tissue—from "not self," but that there are also times when it misidentifies its own material and its immune system subsequently launches an attack. Burnet explored how this identification process evolved and how the process worked in situations of graft versus host with an experiment on chicken embryos. He shared his Nobel Prize with Sir Peter Brian Medawar, who conducted further experimental research on acquired immune tolerance in organ transplants and grafts.

Later Career

In the early 1960s, Burnet retired from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, where he'd served as director since the early '40s. From 1965 to 1969, Burnet was president of the Australian Academy of Science. He continued to write extensively on a range of science topics throughout the rest of his life, with his later works including Immunology, Aging and Cancer (1978).

Burnet received many accolades besides the Nobel Prize over his long career; he was made a knight of the British Empire and was selected as an honorary fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1969, among various other honors. 

Burnet died on August 31, 1985, at the age of 85, in Melbourne, Australia. He was survived by his second wife, Hazel Jenkin (m. 1976); three children from his first marriage, Ian, Elizabeth and Deborah; and eight grandchildren. The author of more than 16 books, Burnet helped generate interest in the study of autoimmune diseases for decades to come.

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