Macfarlane Burnet Uncovered

Day 119 of Colourisation Project – September 3

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, in Traralgon, Victoria, on 3 September 1899, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet was the 1960 Nobel Prize winner for his research into physiology and Australia’s most highly decorated and honoured scientist. He became the first ever recipient of ‘Australian of the Year’ award in 1960 for his contributions to Australian science, and in 1978 he was made a Knight of the Order of Australia.

Although Burnet’s work and achievements in science are widely regarded on the international stage, Burnet, a very proud Australian, was determined to prove that first class science could be carried out in Australia by Australians. Profoundly influenced by the writings of his childhood hero, Charles Darwin, the majority of his research papers were published in Australian journals, notably the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science, and The Medical Journal of Australia.

Macfarlane Burnet

Photo: Denver Faingold – Wellcome Library London – Macfarlane Burnet – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Burnet played an active role in the development of public policy for the medical sciences in Australia and was a founding member of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS). An exhaustive list of all Burnett’s awards and honours can be read here. (Scroll right down to bottom of page.)

Is it therefore feasible that such a celebrated man, whose life work centred around prolonging human life by the eradication of viruses could also be the mastermind behind the notion that biological warfare could be a powerful weapon in defending a sparsely populated Australia against the threat of Indonesia and other ‘overpopulated’ countries of South-East Asia?

A secret report authored by Burnet entitled, Note on War from a Biological Angle, uncovered by Canberra historian Philip Dorling, suggests this was infact the case. In 1998 documents in the National Archives, including Burnet’s report were reluctantly declassified by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, revealing the extent to which Australia considered the development of biological weapons in the 1940s and 50s.  They also revealed the role of Australia’s most highly revered scientist, Macfarlane Burnet in biological warfare.

The Department initially blocked the release of documents on the grounds that it would damage Australia’s international relations.  Not surprising given the top secret biological weapons research was designed to curb Asia’s growing population.

As a member of the Defence Research and Development Policy Committee from 1947 to 1952 and its Chemical and Biological Warfare Subcommittees, Burnet advised that Australia should develop biological weapons that would work in tropical Asia without spreading to Australia’s more temperate population centres. Minutes from a meeting in January 1947, reveal Burnet argued that Australia’s temperate climate could give it a significant military advantage

    “Specifically to the Australian situation, the most effective counter-offensive to threatened invasion by overpopulated Asiatic countries would be directed towards the destruction by biological or chemical means of tropical food crops and the dissemination of infectious disease capable of spreading in tropical but not under Australian conditions.”

Burnet’s report, ‘Note on War from a Biological Angle’ makes disturbing reading.

    “The main strategic use of biological warfare may well be to administer the coup de grace to a virtually defeated enemy and compel surrender in the same way that the atomic bomb served in 1945. Its use has the tremendous advantage of not destroying the enemy’s industrial potential which can then be taken over intact. Overt biological warfare might be used to enforce surrender by psychological rather than direct destructive measures.”

He further urged the government to encourage Australian universities to research areas of biological science of relevance to biological weapons.

Minutes of a meeting at Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks in February 1948 note that Burnet “was of the opinion that if Australia undertakes work in this field it should be on the tropical offensive side rather than the defensive.”

Fortunately Australia did not go down the route of biological warfare (not as far as we know, anyway!) At the time the Menzies government was more interested in trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Thankfully, that never eventuated either.

By the 1960s, Burnet’s attitude seems to have mellowed to the human race and to the place of life on the planet as evidenced by his work on the World Health Organization Expert Advisory Panel on Virus Diseases, his major contributions being in the fields of poliomyelitis and influenza.

Burnet was a prolific writer. He wrote over 500 papers and 31 books, including his autobiography, Changing Patterns (1968), all published in several languages.

He died on 31 August 1985, four days before his 86th birthday at Port Fairy. Following a state funeral he was buried in Tower Hill cemetery, near Koroit in Victoria.

Burnet’s legacy to Science is without doubt enormous; his theories on immunity and ‘clonal selection’ provided the basis for modern biotechnology and genetic engineering. Burnet’s biographer, Christopher Sexton writes in Burnet: a Life that,

    “Burnet’s legacy is fourfold: (1) the scope and quality of his research; (2) his nationalistic attitude which led him to stay in Australia, leading to the development     of science in Australia and inspiring future generations of Australian scientists;           (3) his success establishing the reputation of Australian medical research worldwide; and (4) his books, essays and other writings.”

Was Sir Macfarlane a product of his post-war times when many Australians held deep fears about our more populous Asian neighbours and the perceived threat of the ‘yellow peril’ ?

Or as Peter C. Doherty notes in his book, Burnet Oration: Living in the Burnet Lineage,  “In spite of his sometimes controversial ideas on science and humanity, Burnet’s reputation is secure in his achievements as an experimentalist, a theoretician and a leader of the Australian scientific community.”

You decide.


Burnet’s theory is to Immunology what Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is to Physics and has utterly transformed the field.” 

–  Professor James McCluskey – Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) University of Melbourne

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