Sir F. Macfarlane Burnet, M.D., Ph.D.

F. Macfarlane Burnet

 Brief Bio

Frank Macfarlane Burnet was born on September 3, 1899, in Traralgon, Victoria, Australia, Burnet attended the University of Melbourne where he earned an M.B. B.S. in 1922 and an M.D. in 1924. He spent one year as a resident pathologist at the Melbourne Hospital, working in the laboratories of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Burnet then went to the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London, where he began studying bacteriophage and earned a Ph.D. from the University of London in 1928. When he returned to the Hall Institute later that year as a bacteriologist, he continued his research on phages. Over the next few years, he also produced several studies on staphylococcal toxins, having headed the bacteriological investigations into the "Bundaberg disaster" of 1928, in which several children died from injections of diphtheria antitoxin contaminated with the toxins. Supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Burnet spent 1932 and 1933 at the National Institute of Medical Research, London, where he began studying animal virology and made a significant contribution to the field by devising a method for cultivating viruses in chick embryos.

He returned to Melbourne in 1934 and was promoted to assistant director at the Hall Institute. With his new method for cultivating viruses, he shifted his research focus from phage to viruses, particularly the poliovirus. As the Second World War commenced in the late 1930s, Burnet, anticipating a pandemic like that of 1918, began extensive work on the influenza virus, attempting to develop methods of inoculation that might prevent such an outbreak. In 1944, he was appointed the director of the Hall Institute, which, under his leadership, became "a Mecca for overseas scientists who came to work on influenza virus. Later in his career, as Burnet began to focus on antibody production, he turned his attention to immunology and reoriented the Hall Institute accordingly.

Upon stepping down from the directorship of the Hall Institute in 1965, Burnet was given an office in the School of Microbiology at the University of Melbourne, where he devoted his energy to writing. There he published 13 books over a 12-year period on topics ranging from the general study of human biology, to immunology, to gerontology. He retired in 1978 at the age of 78.

Burnet died of cancer on August 31, 1985, at the home of his son in Port Fairy, Australia. He was 85.

 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Peter Medawar AAI '73) for their “for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance.”

 Lasker Award

1952 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award “for fundamentally modifying our knowledge of viruses and the inheritance of characteristics by viruses.” Click here for more details.

 AAI Service History

Joined: 1961

 Nobel Prize in Science

F. Macfarlane Burnet shared the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Peter Medawar (AAI '73) for their "discovery of acquired immunological tolerance." Burnet hypothesized that the concept of "self" was actively defined by the immune system during embryogenesis, a theory for which Medawar provided experimental proof.

Although virology was his primary research focus in the 1930s and 1940s, Burnet wrote his first book on immunology, a review of the literature on antibody production coupled with his own original insights, in 1941. In a second edition of that work, published in 1949, Burnet proposed the theory of "immunological tolerance." In it, he asserted that if a foreign substance were to be introduced into an embryo before the maturation of the immune system, the antigen would be accepted as self, and no antibody would be produced upon later exposure to the antigen. Medawar successfully demonstrated Burnet's hypothesis in his laboratory at University College, London, by inoculating cells in utero from one mouse strain to another and showing that the adult mice were rendered tolerant to skin grafts from the original cell donor. Their work extended the understanding of immunology by defining the concept of self-nonself discrimination, and their demonstration of the basis for acquired immunological tolerance held far-reaching implications for autoimmunity and transplantation.

Burnet's interest in the theory of antibody production continued to grow in the 1950s. He was particularly intrigued by Niels Jerne's (AAI '73) 1955 article on natural selection theory, in which Jerne argued that antigen-specific antibodies are present before antigen is introduced. Building upon Jerne's theory, Burnet proposed the clonal selection theory of antibody production in a 1957 article that he later expanded into a book.

In Burnet's clonal selection theory, each lymphocyte is unique in that it has receptors specific for one particular antigen. When the antigen binds with the receptor, the lymphocyte is stimulated to divide, giving rise to a clone of lymphocytes producing antibodies to the antigen. Burnet regarded the clonal selection theory as his greatest scientific contribution. The theory became a key principle in adaptive immunity and prompted research into the development and function of lymphocytes, leading to the discovery of the generation of antibody diversity, the demonstration of how the antibody and T cell repertoires are developed, and the elucidation of the role of lymphocyte cell subsets, among others.

"If one had to nominate 'keywords' to describe Burnet's greatness as a biological scientist, they might include—originality, creativity, biological intuition, high intelligence, discipline, persistence, excellent memory, capacity for lateral thinking, ability to write rapidly and clearly, and self-confidence," recalled distinguished virologist Frank Fenner, whom Burnet had recruited to join the faculty at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne after the Second World War.

 Awards and Honors

  • Fellow, Royal Society, 1942
  • Royal Medal, Royal Society (UK), 1947
  • Knighted, 1951
  • Emil von Behring Prize, 1952
  • Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, 1952
  • Fellow, Australian Academy of Sciences, 1954 (president from 1965–1969)
  • Foreign member,  National Academy of Sciences, 1954
  • Order of Merit, 1958
  • Foreign member,  American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1958
  • Copley Medal, Royal Society (UK), 1959
  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1960
  • Foreign member, American Philosophical Society, 1960
  • First International Congress of Immunology Award, 1971

 Institutional/Biographical Links