Frank Fenner

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Ballarat, Australia
Birth Sign
Ballarat, Australia

Frank John Fenner, an Australian scientist, is one of the most eminent figures in the field of virology worldwide. He was awarded numerous prestigious honors, including Companion of the Order of Australia, Member of the Order of the British Empire, and Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, for his dedication to the eradication of communicable diseases. Born in Ballarat, he graduated from the University of Adelaide with a degree in medical science. He later joined the Australian Army Medical Corps as a physician, pathologist, and malariologist. He is remembered for two major accomplishments: (1) supervising the eradication of smallpox and (2) introducing the Myxoma virus to control Australia’s rabbit plague. The Australian Academy of Science annually bestows the prestigious Fenner Medal in his honor for outstanding research in biology by a scientist under the age of 40.

Childhood & Adolescence

Frank Johannes Fenner was born in Ballarat on December 21, 1914. Both of his parents were educators. He was one of the couple’s five children. The family relocated to Adelaide, South Australia, when he was about two years old.

Fenner began his education at Rose Park Primary School before enrolling at Thebarton Technical School. Following completion of his primary education, he was admitted to the University of Adelaide, where he earned his MBBS and MD degrees in 1938 and 1942, respectively. Meanwhile, he graduated from the University of Sydney with a Diploma of Tropical Medicine in 1940.

Career of Frank

He enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1940. He served as a Captain and later as a Major in Australia, Palestine, Egypt, New Guinea, and Borneo. Until 1946, he worked as a physician, pathologist, and malariologist.

Following his wartime service, he was appointed to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne by Frank Macfarlane Burnet. In his early years, he focused primarily on the virus that causes smallpox in mice, referred to as mousepox or Poxvirus genetics.

His research into the pathogenesis of viral disease shaped a large portion of his subsequent career. Additionally, it was his research that resulted in the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines for the disease.

In 1949, he was awarded a fellowship by the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City for his outstanding command of his work. He worked there on mycobacterium Bairnsdale bacillus, the causative agent of Buruli ulcer. It was the third most prevalent mycobacterial disease worldwide, after tuberculosis and leprosy.

He returned to Australia in 1949 and was appointed Professor of Microbiology at the Australian National University’s new John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra.

His interest in viruses grew and he began studying the myxoma virus. He was primarily concerned with achieving a balance between virus virulence and host resistance.

He studied the pathogenesis, classification, morphology, and relationship of the virus to other virus groups, particularly the poxvirus group, as well as immunity. He also looked at the changes in virulence that occurred in the early days and then gradually shifted.

He was the Director of John Curtis School for five years, from 1967 to 1973. Along with his directorship at the John Curtis School, he founded and served as the founding Director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Resources and Environmental Studies from 1973 until his retirement in 1979.

He was offered the position due to his unwavering interest in the environment. The Center was merged with the Fenner School of Environment and Society in 2007.

In 1977, he was appointed chairman of the Global Commission for Smallpox Eradication Certification. On May 8, 1980, he addressed the World Health Assembly, announcing the disease’s complete eradication.

The complete eradication of smallpox was one of the World Health Organization’s major accomplishments, as the disease was one of the world’s most lethal viruses, responsible for millions of deaths. Those who barely survived bore defacing scars for the rest of their lives.

Awards and Accomplishments

In 1945, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work combating malaria in Papua, New Guinea.

He was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1976 for his contributions to medical research.

In 1988, he shared the Japan Prize for Preventive Medicine. Recognizing his contributions to medical science, public health, and the environment, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).
The Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal in 1995.

He received the Albert Einstein World Award for Science in 2000. Two years later, he received the Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award for Lifetime Contribution.

Among the other notable awards he has received are the WHO Medal, the Mueller Medal, the ANZAAS Medal, the ANZAC Peace Prize, the Matthew Flinders Medal, the Britannica Australia Award for Medicine, the 2002 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and the 2005 ACT Senior Australian of the Year.

Personal History and Legacies

He first met Ellen Margaret ‘Bobbie’ Roberts while serving in the Australian Army Nursing Service during World War II. As a trained midwife and nurse, she worked on malaria.

The two exchanged vows in a Catholic ceremony. Due to their infertility, the couple adopted two children, Marilyn Aldus and Victoria Fenner.

On March 30, 1958, tragedy struck the family when their younger daughter Victoria Fenner shot and killed herself.

The autopsy determined that the death was caused by severe mental and spiritual disturbances.

He suffered another major setback in 1989, when his wife, Bobbie Fenner, was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1994. His elder daughter and her family moved into his family home following her death to care for him.

On November 22, 2010, he passed away following a brief illness. The ANU Medical School and Faculty of Science, as well as a residential college building, were named in his honor posthumously.

The Australian Academy of Science established the prestigious Fenner Medal in his honor to recognize scientists under the age of 40 who have made significant contributions to biology research.

Estimated Net Worth

The net worth of Frank is $1-$8million.


This Australian scientist was instrumental in eradicating smallpox successfully.