Professor Don Metcalf

Professor Don Metcalf

Professor Don Metcalf in the laboratory
Professor Don Metcalf is regarded as the ‘father of modern haematology’. He is best known for his pioneering discovery of colony stimulating factors, which have helped more than 20 million people worldwide.

Early career

Professor Metcalf began his research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in 1954 with a Carden Fellowship in cancer research from the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria (now Cancer Council Victoria). He spent his early years here studying vaccinia virus under Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet.

He undertook postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School from 1956 to 1958, before returning to the Institute as head of the Cancer Research laboratory. In 1966, Professor Metcalf became deputy director of the Institute, under newly appointed director Sir Gustav Nossal.

Colony stimulating factors

Don Metcalf at the microscope

In the early 1960s Professor Metcalf speculated that there must be a biological mechanism – one or more hormones – that controlled white blood cell production.  

These white blood cells become severely depleted in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, leaving them vulnerable to serious and sometimes fatal infections.

Over a period of fifteen years Metcalf and his colleagues identified and purified four hormones that regulate blood cell production. These were dubbed ‘colony stimulating factors’, or CSFs, because they stimulated the production of white blood cells.

Don Metcalf in the lab with colleagues

By the late 1980s gene cloning enabled mass production of CSFs, and they were rolled out to clinics worldwide. To date, Professor Metcalf’s discovery has benefited more than 20 million cancer patients worldwide.

CSFs also revolutionised transplant medicine, leading to new techniques for performing bone marrow transplants for patients with blood diseases such as leukaemia

Although officially retiring in1996, Professor Metcalf continued his research at the Institute for a further 18 years, studying the regulation of normal and leukaemic blood cells. In his last months, with poor health finally preventing him from coming into the Institute, he requested a microscope be set up at home so he could continue working as long as possible.

Señor Jose Carreras

One of the first patients to benefit from Professor Metcalf’s work was famed Spanish tenor, Señor Jose Carreras. 

CSF recipient Señor Jose Carreras (L) meets
Professor Metcalf

After being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, which did not respond to initial treatment, Señor Carreras received a treatment regime that included CSF therapy in 1987. He responded positively and recovered.

Señor Carreras visited the Institute in 1991 to meet Professor Metcalf and thank him for his role in developing the treatment. He also attended Professor Metcalf’s seventieth birthday in 1997 to sing him Happy Birthday. 

Awards and honours

Professor Metcalf’s work was honoured through his election to scientific academies in Australia, the UK and the US and by the awarding of almost every major international science prize.

He was named an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1976 and a Companion of the Order (AC) in 1993.

Don Metcalf holding Lasker Award
Professor Metcalf was awarded the 1993 
Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research

Notable awards

2007  American Association for Cancer Research Lifetime Achievement Award
2001  Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
2001  Centenary Medal
2000  Victoria Prize
1997  AACR Lifetime Achievement Award
1995  Royal Medal of the Royal Society
1994  Gairdner Foundation International Award
1993  Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research
1989  Alfred P Sloan Prize of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation
1988  Robert Koch Prize
1988  Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences
1987  Bristol-Myer Prize for Distinguished Cancer Research
1983  Fellow of the Royal Society of London
1969  Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science

Don Metcalf interviews

In 2005 Professor Metcalf was interviewed for the WEHI Revisited series (produced by Louise Darmody, Sound Memories), in which several Institute luminaries spoke about what drove them to pursue a career in medical research, and shared memories of life at the Institute. 

•    Don Metcalf – an early learner (6:01)
•    High school challenges (3:41)
•    Searching for the answers at Sydney University (7:27)
•    Don Metcalf: cancer researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (4:08)
•    Colony stimulating factors (10:18)
•    Don’s driving force (3:24)

The interviews listed here are drawn from longer interviews that can be accessed at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, and the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

Professor Don Metcalf with staff and students

As a tribute to a scientist, known the world over as ‘the father of modern haematology’, the Metcalf Scholarship Fund has been established to support promising young researchers.

Colony stimulating factors - WEHI.TV animation

Since their discovery by Professor Donald Metcalf and his colleagues, CSFs have helped millions of cancer patients to survive the damage to bone marrow caused by high-dose chemotherapy.

Mastering disease through discovery book cover

A celebration of the scientific research achievements of Professor Donald Metcalf on the occasion of his 80th birthday.