Briefly: Professor Frank Fenner

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The Independent Online

Professor Frank Fenner, who died on 22 November at the age of 95, was an Australian microbiologist who led the way in eradicating smallpox. He was also celebrated for his work on the myxoma virus which helped in the suppression of the wild rabbit populations in Australia in the early 1950s.

Born at Ballarat, Victoria, on 21 December 1914, one of five children, Fenner began his research career during the Second World War, fighting malaria among Australian troops in New Guinea. After the war, as Professor of Microbiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra, he began to investigate pox viruses.

Wild rabbits were devastating Australia, and the myxoma virus was seen as a way to combat them. The virus escaped in the early 1950s, however, killing millions of rabbits. A concurrent outbreak of human encephalitis led to suggestions that the two diseases were connected. Fenner and his colleagues, insisting that the viruses were different, injected themselves with enough myxoma to kill 1,000 rabbits. When they suffered no ill-effects the public was reassured.

From 1969, Fenner worked with the World Health Organisation as an adviser to the smallpox eradication programme and in 1977 became chairman of the WHO's Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication. Over the next three years he made several trips to smallpox trouble spots. On 8 May 1980 he announced that the disease had been eradicated.

His last public pronouncement was in June, when he suggested that humans could have died out as early as 100 years from now thanks to global warming, "unbridled consumption" and a population explosion.

'The Aborigines showed that without science and the production of carbon dioxide and global warming, they could survive for 40,000 or 50,000 years," he said. "But the world can't. Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years. A lot of other animals will too. It's irreversible."