Diaries of Australian virologist who helped eradicate smallpox now available online

February 15, 2022
Hand-written notes from one of John Fenner's diaries, and John Fenner declaring that smallpox had been eradicated
The work of Professor Frank Fenner AC CMG MBE FAA FRS and others resulted in the eradication of smallpox. His notes from 8 May included the following: “ … Pres Exec Board presented Resolution 1, accepting eradication of spx. Pres of Assembly (Kuwait) said Are there any objections? ½ sec. There are no objections – banged hammer.”  (AAS MS14 3000309 page 104). Images: Australian Academy of Science

On 8 May 1980, Australian virologist Professor Frank Fenner stood before the World Health Assembly in Geneva and declared smallpox, an ancient disease thought to be responsible for more than half a billion deaths during the last hundred years of its existence alone, had been eradicated.

For Frank Fenner, the announcement was the culmination of 35 years of research into poxviruses and more than a decade’s work on the eradication campaign, first as a principal advisor and later as Chair of the World Health Organization (WHO) commission that certified when and where the virus had been defeated. Although reporting smallpox gone from humanity was the proudest moment of his life, Professor Fenner’s work with the Smallpox Eradication Program was just one achievement in a long and distinguished career.

The Frank Fenner manuscript collection held in the archives at the Australian Academy of Science documents his extensive research contribution to the understanding of viruses and the literature of microbiology. It is also an unexpectedly rich personal archive recording Professor Fenner’s thoughts on the implications of his work, broad-ranging intellectual interests, environmental activism, and contributions to the broader community.

The Fenner Collection was inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register in 2019 and received a grant from the Asia Culture Center (ACC) and Memory of the World Committee for Asia and the Pacific (MOWCAP) to enhance preservation and accessibility in 2021. The grant has enabled the Academy, in collaboration with the National Library of Australia, to digitise Professor Fenner’s diaries detailing work undertaken internationally between 1948 and 1999.

The digitised diaries are now freely accessible via Trove and the Academy online catalogue.  

The 22 notebooks were handwritten during his extensive travels throughout the world – beginning with his fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where he developed a new system for counting mycobacterium associated with tuberculosis and, unlike some of his coworkers, managed to avoid contracting a tuberculosis infection himself.

The diaries feature visits to India as part of the Colombo Plan to strengthen economic and social development in the Asia-Pacific and Indonesia on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Professor Fenner writes fondly of travel to Stockholm to celebrate the presentation of the Nobel Prize to fellow Australian Professor Peter Doherty, visits to virology labs in numerous countries and international recognition for his efforts combating Australia's rabbit plague through the myxoma virus.

Of particular interest is Professor Fenner’s personal experience of the Smallpox Eradication Program. He started with his initial contact with the project – a committee meeting of the Informal Group on Monkeypox and Related Virus that met for the first time in Moscow in 1969 to exclude the possibility of an animal reservoir of smallpox capable of reintroducing the disease to humans, and continued with detailed descriptions of travel to India, Nepal, China, Switzerland and the countries of eastern and southern Africa as Chair of the Global Commission for the Certification of Smallpox Eradication. 

Professor Fenner follows up with accounts of receiving the Japan Prize in Preventative Medicine for his smallpox work alongside Dr D A Henderson and Dr Isao Arita in 1988, and records the seven years he was consumed by his role as senior author of the WHO archival history, ‘Smallpox and its eradication’. 

The eradication of smallpox is the first time in human history a disease has been entirely wiped out. The program required an astounding degree of cooperation across political and cultural barriers, and its vaccination, disease surveillance and containment strategy laid the foundation for ongoing immunisation work and underpinned the establishment of primary healthcare in many countries. Professor Fenner’s experience as Chair of the WHO Committee for Post-Eradication Policy and discussion of expanded international strategies to fight malaria, poliomyelitis and other infectious diseases is especially relevant today during efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Make history with us

Frank Fenner’s diaries account for a relatively small percentage of his overall manuscript holdings, but their expansive scope provides a framework for understanding much of the remaining collection. They cover five decades of Professor Fenner’s career and preserve memory and feelings that fill gaps in an often depersonalised and compressed published record. The newly digitised notebooks will play an essential role in contextualising the Fenner manuscript collection as a whole and in planning for future conservation and digitisation of related material.

The research and experience of Australian scientists forms the foundation on which we build our future. It is vitally important that we capture, preserve, and digitise their stories — but we need your help. Donations from organisations and individuals are welcome and will contribute to the very significant cost of digitisation the archives. If you would like more information about supporting this project, please contact our Philanthropy Manager today by calling 02 6201 9400 or email philanthropy@science.org.au


© 2023 Australian Academy of Science