Frank Macfarlane Burnet Revealed
Frank Macfarlane Burnet (1899-1985)
The father of "immunology"
'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.'
Frank Macfarlane Burnet in a report to the Australian Parliament, 1947
The Macfarlane Burnet Index
ABC Radio AM Program - Frank Macfarlane Burnet revealed
Burnet's solution: The plan to poison S-E Asia
Burnet's family complained to the Australian Press Council about this article
More links on Macfarlane Burnet
AM - Frank Macfarlane Burnet revealed
[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2004/s1187186.htm]
AM - Saturday, 28 August , 2004 08:28:00
Reporter: Jayne-Maree SedgmanTANYA NOLAN: He's been described as Australia's greatest biologist, but it's emerged Frank Macfarlane Burnet was a lot more complex than many people realised.
His immunology research led to cures for a number of diseases that plagued the third world. It also earned him the Nobel Prize in 1960, and the following year, saw him named Australian of the Year.
In recent times the world learnt of Sir Frank's darker side and involvement in top secret biological weapons research, designed to curb Asia's growing population.
But, ABC Television's Rewind program has found years later, after extensive traveling, he realised the error of his thinking.
Jayne-Maree Sedgman spoke to Rewind host, Michael Cathcart, about the enigma that was Frank Macfarlane Burnet.
JAYNE-MAREE SEDGMAN: Well, Michael Cathcart, we know that discoveries made by Frank Macfarlane Burnet in the field of immunology helped cure some diseases, but he also feared that his work might lead to a population explosion in Asia, and that led him to become involved in biological weapons planning.
Now, what do we know about that research?
MICHAEL CATHCART: Well, after the Second World War, there were extensive programs in the United Kingdom to develop chemical and biological weapons, and the Australian Defence Department decided that it had to get involved as well, because of course we had just come out of the Second World War, we'd been invaded by the Japanese, and the chance of another onslaught from Asia was very real.
And Macfarlane Burnet was our top man in the field, and he was enthusiastic, I think you could say, about the potential of biological and chemical weapons for keeping the Asiatic hordes, as he saw them, at bay.
JAYNE-MAREE SEDGMAN: Now I understand that your program seeks to emphasise that as abhorrent as those ideas obviously were, Sir Frank was a product of his time.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Well, I think… that's true, he was, I think it can be fairly said, a white supremacist in that period. He would write phrases such as – the Europeans, Americans and Russians were the best genetic stock of the human race. He referred to the people of Asia as the Asiatic races who had to be kept in check by various means.
He was really filled with those images of the swarming hordes of Asia that were so common in the thinking of Australians in that post-war period.
JAYNE-MAREE SEDGMAN: But then in the 1960s I understand he had an epiphany of sorts?
MICHAEL CATHCART: Well, this is what's so wonderful about the story. You could stop the story at the point where you say – great scientist but we discovered that he held all these racist ideas back in the '40s and '50s – but what is beautiful about this story is that in the late '50s, he traveled.
He gets out of the laboratory, he takes his face out of the microscope, and he meets the human race face to face. He goes to Ceylon, he goes to India, he goes to the Soviet Union, and there he meets not swarming hordes or faceless Soviets, he meets flesh and blood people, and really has this enormous change of heart.
And when he comes back to Australia in the 1960s, his attitude to the human race and to the place of life on the planet in general is almost Buddhist.
JAYNE-MAREE SEDGMAN: Michael Cathcart, did he ever publicly denounce his previous way of thinking?
MICHAEL CATHCART: I don't think he ever said 'I was wrong back then, I believe these things now.' He wasn't the kind of man to admit error. There was a kind of stubbornness about Macfarlane Burnet.
But there is an astonishing journey there, in which he goes from being a man of his times, as people keep saying, to really a leader in progressive and humane thinking.
By the early '60s he can be fairly called visionary.
TANYA NOLAN: Michael Cathcart speaking there to Jayne-Maree Sedgman. And the full story can be seen on Rewind on ABC TV tomorrow night.
© 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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Burnet's solution: The plan to poison S-E Asia
By Brendan Nicholson
March 10 2002
This is the print version of story http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/03/09/1015365752044.html
World-famous microbiologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet, the Nobel prize winner revered as Australia's greatest medical research scientist, secretly urged the government to develop biological weapons for use against Indonesia and other "overpopulated" countries of South-East Asia.
The revelation is contained in top-secret files declassified by the National Archives of Australia, despite resistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Sir Macfarlane recommended in a secret report in 1947 that biological and chemical weapons should be developed to target food crops and spread infectious diseases.
His key advisory role on biological warfare was uncovered by Canberra historian Philip Dorling in the National Archives in 1998.
The department initially blocked release of the material on the basis it would damage Australia's international relations. Dr Dorling sought a review and the material was finally released to him late last year.
The files include a comprehensive memo Sir Macfarlane wrote for the Defence Department in 1947 in which he said Australia should develop biological weapons that would work in tropical Asia without spreading to Australia's more temperate population centres.
"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," Sir Macfarlane said.
The Victorian-born immunologist, who headed the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1960. He died in 1985 but his theories on immunity and "clonal selection" provided the basis for modern biotechnology and genetic engineering.
On December 24, 1946, the secretary of the Department of Defence, F.G. Shedden, wrote to Macfarlane Burnet saying Australia could not ignore the fact that many countries were conducting intense research on biological warfare and inviting him to a meeting of top military officers to discuss the question.
The minutes of a meeting in January, 1947, reveal that Sir Macfarlane argued that Australia's temperate climate could give it a significant military advantage.
"The main contribution of local research so far as Australia is concerned might be to study intensively the possibilities of biological warfare in the tropics against troops and civil populations at a relatively low level of hygiene and with correspondingly high resistance to the common infectious diseases," he told the meeting.
In September, 1947, Sir Macfarlane was invited to join a chemical and biological warfare subcommittee of the New Weapons and Equipment Development Committee.
He prepared a secret report titled Note on War from a Biological Angle suggesting that biological warfare could be a powerful weapon to help defend a thinly populated Australia.
Sir Macfarlane also urged the government to encourage universities to research those branches of biological science that had a special bearing on biological warfare.
A clinically scientific approach is evident in a note he wrote in June, 1948.
He said a successful attack with a microbiological agent on a large population would have such a devastating impact that its use was extremely unlikely while both sides were capable of retaliation.
"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."
The minutes of a meeting at Melbourne's Victoria Barracks in 1948 noted that Sir Macfarlane "was of the opinion that if Australia undertakes work in this field it should be on the tropical offensive side rather than the defensive. There was very little known about biological attack on tropical crops."
After visiting the UK in 1950 and examining the British chemical and biological warfare research effort, Sir Macfarlane told the committee that the initiation of epidemics among enemy populations had usually been discarded as a means of waging war because it was likely to rebound on the user.
"In a country of low sanitation the introduction of an exotic intestinal pathogen, e.g. by water contamination, might initiate widespread dissemination," he said.
"Introduction of yellow fever into a country with appropriate mosquito vectors might build up into a disabling epidemic before control measures were established."
The subcommittee recommended that "the possibilities of an attack on the food supplies of S-E Asia and Indonesia using B.W. agents should be considered by a small study group".
It 1951 it recommended that "a panel reporting to the chemical and biological warfare subcommittee should be authorised to report on the offensive potentiality of biological agents likely to be effective against the local food supplies of South-East Asia and Indonesia".
Dr Dorling said that while Sir Macfarlane was a great Australian he was also a product of times when many Australians held deep fears about more populous Asian countries.
He said the Menzies government was more interested in trying to acquire nuclear weapons. "Fortunately this also proved impracticable and Australia never acquired a weapon of mass destruction."
The secretary of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, Peter French, said he had not yet seen the files but the whole notion of biological warfare was something that Australian scientists would not be comfortable with today. "Viewed through today's eyes it is clearly an abhorrent suggestion," Dr French said.Burnet's family complained to the Australian Press Council about this article
More links on Macfarlane Burnet
The following links are provided by Virus Myth Australia for further research purposes:
The Burnet Institute - Australia's largest virology and communicable disease research institute.
Australian Academy of Science - Memoirs - Frank Macfarlane Burnet
1960 Nobel Laureates
Brights Sparcs Biographical entry - Frank Marcfarlane Burnet
The Tall Poppy campaign - Frank Macfarlane Burnet
Centre for International Health - Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health
Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre - Frank Macfarlane Burnet Guide to Records
Architectonics - Sir Macfarlane Burnet