Sir Gustav Nossal

Sir Gustav Nossal

Sir Gustav Nossal in the lab

Director, 1965-1996

Sir Gustav Nossal is revered as an eminent immunologist and advocate for global health, and as an outstanding leader. In his 31 years as director, he increased the institute's scientific scope and size, nurturing new research programs and transforming the institute into the dynamic organisation it is today.

Nossal's outgoing personality and great gift for communication, coupled with a formidable scientific intellect, have made him one of Australia's foremost advocates for science. His influence and vision have created an enduring legacy. He continues to support the institute's research, staff and students in his role as patron.

Contribution to immunology

Nossal in the laboratory

As a young medical graduate, Sir Gustav Nossal came to the institute expecting to study virology. He arrived just at the time Sir Macfarlane Burnet had decided that the institute’s focus was to shift entirely to immunology research – and Sir Gustav Nossal became an immunologist. 

His research greatly advanced understanding of how our immune system generates antibodies to protect us from infectious diseases. In addition, his ideas and experiments greatly clarified how the immune system learns to distinguish our own body from foreign invaders, how breakdown of this tolerance can lead to autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

In 1965, Sir Gustav Nossal succeeded Sir Macfarlane Burnet as institute director.

Burnet and Nossal at the microscope
Sir Gustav Nossal (L) with his predecessor as director,
Sir Macfarlane Burnet

As well as continuing to pursue his own successful research programs, as director Sir Gustav Nossal supported many globally significant research discoveries by institute researchers.

During this period the institute expanded its research scope to include haematology, parasitology, molecular biology and neural development. Immunology remained a central focus, and Nossal himself greatly advanced understanding of Burnet’s clonal selection theory and the immune system’s ‘tolerance to self’.

Funding priority

One of Sir Gustav Nossal’s first accomplishments as director was to put the institute on a firmer financial footing. He successfully persuaded the National Health and Medical Research Council to provide a triennial block grant, allowing our researchers to focus more on research than on securing research funding. 

This policy was later extended to other major medical research institutes and was probably one of the most important factors contributing to the extraordinary success enjoyed today by Australian biomedical science.

Nurturing the best and brightest

Under Nossal’s leadership, many eminent scientists were drawn to the institute.

Professor Ian Mackay pioneered clinical research on autoimmunity and began treatment of autoimmunity with immunosuppressive drugs – still the gold standard today.

Nossal, Bolte and Metcalf talking together
Sir Gustav Nossal (L) and Professor Don Metcalf (R) explaining
their research with Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte in 1966

Professor Don Metcalf discovered the colony stimulating factors (CSFs) that have now helped more than 20 million cancer patients worldwide to recover from chemotherapy, and which have revolutionised blood stem cell transplantation.

Immunology research continued to grow from its Burnet-era expansion. Professor Jacques Miller was recruited from London. Building on his seminal discovery of the function of the thymus, he discovered that T lymphocytes derived from the thymus helped B lymphocytes create antibodies. At the same time, Professor Ken Shortman began his groundbreaking analysis of T cell development, which expanded into studies of dendritic cells. 

Professors Adams, Cory and Shortman in the lab
(L-R) Professor Jerry Adams, Professor Suzanne Cory
and Professor Ken Shortman in the 1970s

Professor Suzanne Cory and Professor Jerry Adams were recruited by Sir Gustav Nossal to introduce the nascent field of molecular biology to the institute. Their research first contributed to uncovering how the immune system generates diverse antibodies – by rearranging antibody genes within B cells. The research ventured into studies of gene rearrangements in leukaemia, and from there to understanding cell death, research which Professors Cory and Adams continue today.

Sir Gustav Nossal initiated a research program into globally significant parasitic diseases, including malaria, into the institute. The immunoparasitology research team, led by Dr Graham Mitchell, started in a small way but rapidly expanded. This was the foundation from which our Infection and Immunity researchers continue today.

Nossal overlooking building site

New facilities

With the institute’s growth came a need for more space and state-of-the-art technology. Sir Gustav Nossal built up sophisticated scientific facilities such as proteomics and flow cytometry, and gained the funding required to build a new, purpose-built home for the institute. 

The new building, the western wing of our present site behind The Royal Melbourne Hospital, was completed in 1985, and greatly enhanced our research capacity.

Warrior for global heath

Over several decades Sir Gustav has inspired and guided the national scientific agenda, and is known to be one of Australia’s foremost science advocates. 

He has also been an energetic warrior for global health, most notably through his long-standing association with the World Health Organisation and more recently with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Sir Gustav also served as Deputy Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation from 1998 to 2000.

Awards and honours

Queen Elizabeth II knighting Sir Gustav Nossal
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II knighting Sir Gustav Nossal

Sir Gustav Nossal was knighted in 1977 for his pioneering research work in immunology, and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1989. He was named Australian of the Year in 2000.

Internationally, Sir Gustav Nossal is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, and Member of the French Academie des Sciences.

In 2006 the Nossal Institute for Global Health was established and named in Sir Gustav Nossal’s honour, with a mission to improve the health of vulnerable communities.

Nossal interviews

In 2005 Sir Gustav 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. 

 Diversity and Discovery

Diversity and Discovery

The remarkable advances in medical research between 1965 and 1996 coincided with the tenure of director Sir Gustav Nossal. As both a participant and keen observer, Nossal brings to life the exhilaration and the frustration of this revolutionary era.

Copies of this book can be ordered by phone +61 3 9345 2555. Cost $40 + P&H.

Discovery Timeline website screenshot

Explore the Institute's 100 years of discoveries for humanity.

Follow the timelines, meet the people behind the science, and find out how we've changed Australian medical research.