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02/06/11

Institute hosts quintuple anniversary to celebrate science legends

 

Professor Jacques Miller (left) and Sir Gustav Nossal in the laboratory, discussing a model of white cell membrane.

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute will today host more than 200 alumni and invited guests from around the world to celebrate a quintuple anniversary of science legends.

The quintuple anniversary celebration includes recognition of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the function of the thymus by esteemed institute researcher Professor Jacques Miller. It will also honour four alumni from the institute who are celebrating significant birthdays; Sir Gustav Nossal and Professor Jacques Miller, who will celebrate their 80th birthdays, and Professor Ian Mackay and Dr Margaret Holmes, who will celebrate their 90th birthdays.

The thymus was the last organ to have its function explained; Professor Miller made the discovery whilst working at the Chester Beatty Research Institute and published his landmark study on “the immunological function of the thymus” in The Lancet in 1961.

Professor Phil Hodgkin, head of the Immunology division at the institute, said Professor Miller’s discovery has spawned immeasurably valuable research. “His astonishing conclusion that the thymus was essential to the development and function of the immune system found a sceptical audience,” said Professor Hodgkin. “It took a few years before Miller was finally vindicated.”

The discovery revolutionised the field of immunology, and led Professor Miller to another major research finding whilst at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute – the identification of the two major lymphocyte populations, T cells and B cells, which form the basis of the immune response.

Professor Miller said he was very grateful to Gus Nossal for having invited him to head a new unit at the institute in 1966. “Let me just say that I have been very lucky to have such wonderful companions and fellow workers throughout my time at the institute,” he said.

Sir Gustav, Professor Miller and Professor Mackay all made seminal discoveries in the field of immunology during their time at the institute. In 1958, Sir Gustav identified that one immune cell was only able to produce one type of antibody. In the 1950s and 60s Professor Mackay led the field of research into autoimmune diseases, coining the term ‘autoimmunity’.

Sir Gustav, director of the institute from 1965 until his retirement in 1996, said that his more than 30 years in the institute got off to a ‘bad start’. “I had come to work under the world’s greatest virologist, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, and to my dismay he was phasing out virus work, turning the institute almost entirely towards immunology. I was disappointed at first; little did I realise that he had climbed onto a huge wave that was just about to break, propelling us younger workers into a glorious future,” he said.

Professor Ian Mackay, who joined the institute in 1956 and headed the institute’s Clinical Research Unit from 1963 until his retirement in 1987, said that he looked back on a most fulfilling research career and felt privileged to have been associated with such gifted colleagues. “Shortly after my arrival Burnet recruited Gus Nossal and I’m sure that he too would have had the same impression as myself: ‘The radically new may be upon us’,” Professor Mackay said. “So began our collegial association and warm friendship that has lasted 50 years.”

Dr Margaret Holmes has spent more than half her life at the institute, starting as a junior research technician in 1936, and retiring as general manager in 1986. “For nearly 67 years, the institute has been my home and my family,” Dr Holmes said.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said he felt privileged to host the event, which will commemorate more than 140 years of service to the institute and fundamental discoveries that shaped the field. “I am deeply honoured to have Gus, Jacques, Ian and Margaret return to the institute to celebrate their birthdays with friends and colleagues,” Professor Hilton said. “Celebrating their landmark birthdays is an occasion to thank them for their astounding contributions to the institute and inspire the next generation of scientists to build on their incredible legacies.”

For further information

Liz Williams
Communications and Marketing Officer
Ph: +61 3 9345 2928
Mob: 0405 279 095
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