Frank Johannes (John) FENNER MBE

FENNER, Frank Johannes (John)

Service Number: SX4845
Enlisted: 15 May 1940, Paddington, SA
Last Rank: Major
Last Unit: Not yet discovered
Born: Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, 21 December 1914
Home Town: Rose Park, South Australia
Schooling: Thebarton Technical School, South Australia
Occupation: Medical Practitioner
Died: 22 November 2010, aged 95 years, cause of death not yet discovered, place of death not yet discovered
Cemetery: Not yet discovered
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World War 2 Service

15 May 1940: Involvement Major, SN SX4845
15 May 1940: Enlisted Paddington, SA
19 Jul 1945: Honoured Member of the Order of the British Empire
30 Jan 1946: Discharged 2nd AIF WW 2, Major, HQ 1 Corps

Help us honour Frank Johannes (John) Fenner's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Julianne Ryan

Born 21 December 1914 in Ballarat, Victoria.

Father: Gen XVII Charles Albert Edward Fenner  (b. 18/05/1884 - d. 09/06/1955)
married  04/01/1911
Mother Emma Louise (Peggy) Hirt
(b. 19/08/1883 Narracan, in Gippsland, Victoria - d. 09/02/1966)
living at Rose Park, South Australia.

Charles Fenner, who had been appointed Director of Education in 1939, retired because of ill health in 1946. He then worked at home and as a volunteer at the South Australian Museum until he had a stroke early in 1954. He died on 9 June, 1955. The house at 42 Alexandra Avenue (see Chapter 1) was sold in November 1956 and Mother moved to a smaller house at 10 Springbank Road, Panorama, where she lived until 1964, when she went into a nursing home. She died on 9 February, 1966. Lyell's eldest son Ted lived in the house for about a year and then it was sold.

Charles Lyell FENNER  (b. 17/08/1912 in Melbourne, Victoria - d. 25/05/1997
Frank Johannes (John) FENNER  (b. 21/12/1914 in Ballarat, Victoria) 
    m. Ellen Margaret (Bobbie) Roberts
Winifred Joyce FENNER (b. 26/08/1916 in Ballarat, Victoria)
Thomas Richard FENNER (b. 18/06/1918 in Adelaide, South Australia)
William Greenock FENNER (b. 11/03/1922 in Adelaide, South Australia)


Next of Kin in service:
5373 Private Thomas Richard Fenner, 14th Battalion of Yendon, Victoria.)
29 August 1916 killed in action at Mouquet Farm, France,
when a high explosive shell buried him in a dugout.
Post war his body was not recovered and he is commemorated with honour on the
Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, France

Lieutenant Commander Thomas Richard Fenner (Royal Australian Navy)
HMAS Lonsdale


Father, Mother and the three children, Lyell, Frank and Winn, moved from Ballarat to Adelaide in November 1916

Iramoo, the house at 42 Alexander Avenue, Rose Park in 1931, had a second storey added as the boys' shared bedroom.

There was only one woman among the 17 students who graduated in medicine in 1938 and became resident medical officers in the Adelaide Hospital in February 1939. All of us, except for her and two of the men, enlisted in the Army or Air Force when they finished their year of residence. I was not a pacifist and I thought that there was no alternative to war with Hitler. With hindsight, I realise that I would have faced serious problems of conscience if I had been in any service other than the medical corps and had had to kill another person. Of course, I would not have been alone in that, it was just so much easier to serve as a medico.

As early as December 1939, it had been decided that Australian troops would initially be sent to Palestine, and the advance party had arrived there in early January. I knew that a number of unusual infectious diseases that occurred in tropical and semitropical countries were found in the Middle East, and I wanted to have the chance to be something other than a regimental or field ambulance medical officer. In 1939, resident medical officers at Adelaide Hospital received board and lodging and about £5 a week, plus a bonus of £200 if they stayed on for the full year, i.e., until February. I used the bonus to go to Sydney and study for the Diploma of Tropical Medicine (DTM), a three-month course available in Australia only at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney. I stayed at St Andrew's College, which was on the University grounds. My best friend there was Edgar Mercer, who had been at Adelaide High School a couple of years ahead of me. He had a flat in King's Cross and we used to go there most weekends. Coming from Adelaide, which has hot but dry nights, I found Sydney's humid nights during February hard to take. I worked for three months at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where, amongst others, I met Ted (later Sir Edward) Ford, who was lecturer in bacteriology. He had been a close personal friend and admirer of my mentor in physical anthropology, Wood Jones, and Ted and I were later to work as colleagues in malaria control in New Guinea. While there I also played for the Sydney University hockey team. Altogether, I greatly enjoyed my time there. Returning home to Adelaide in April.

I finally enlisted as a Captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps on 9 May, 1940, commencing duty with the 2/6 Australian Field Ambulance on 12 June, 1940.

During the six-month training period at Woodside, in the Adelaide Hills, as well as all the other training, we used to go for long marches every few days, during which I used to read a book as soon as we got going, an uncommon but not illegal action. The longest march we had was from Woodside to Mannum, where we officers met with the local doctor, whose name was Alpers. I remember meeting his two sons, one of whom, Michael, eventually became the Director of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research. In recent communications with Michael, he also remembers my arrival there. We usually had weekends off and most of us would go back to Adelaide. I continued playing hockey with the Adelaide University team, and one day was hit in the eye by the ball and got a black eye. As might be expected, this aroused a lot of derisive comment from the troops at drill on Monday.

In our spare time, Noel Bonnin (a surgeon six years older than me and also an officer in the 2/6 Field Ambulance) and I set up a small laboratory and carried out a number of experiments on the treatment of gas gangrene in guinea pigs by the local application of sulphanilamide, the only antibacterial drug then known. We published an article describing our results (Bonnin and Fenner, 1941). An article in the Adelaide newspaper, The News, in January 1942, mentioned that research workers at Tulane University, in the United States, had published a paper suggesting the use of another sulphonamide, sulphathiazole, based on our results.

Along with many other troops, the Unit embarked for Palestine in December 1940, disembarking at Suez. We then moved up to Gaza, where the majority of Australian troops were located immediately after they arrived. A field exercise there a few weeks after disembarkation included an exchange of officers and other ranks between the 2/4 and the 2/6 Field Ambulances, during which I earned the wrath of the brigadier in charge of the operation. As far as I could ascertain, he was upset because I had followed the advice of the Officer-in-Charge of the 2/6 Field Ambulance, Lieut-Col. E. (Teddy) Beare, that officers should always ‘march with the men’. Thus, I left the decision about where to place an Advanced Dressing Station to the Staff Sergeant, who had gone ahead with the equipment on a truck. The brigadier arrived at the same time as I did, regarded the site that had been selected as very dangerous, and rightly blamed me for it. During that exercise we had the opportunity to visit many Palestinian villages, and see the threshing of wheat, camels at work, and so on. I still feel sympathy for the Palestinians ousted by the state of Israel.

A few weeks after this exercise I was transferred to Headquarters, First Australian Corps, where I worked closely with the Deputy Director of Medical Services, Brigadier W. W. S. Johnson, a fine physician and a fine gentleman. There may have been other considerations in my transfer, possibly related to my Diploma of Tropical Medicine, but for me it was a most fortunate change. Johnson took me with him when he visited Jerusalem and there I met Dr Saul Adler, FRS, an outstanding parasitologist and an expert on malaria in the region. I met Ted Ford again, he was responsible for a Mobile Bacteriological Unit attached to Corps headquarters. I also made the acquaintance of Colonel (later Brigadier Sir) Hamilton Fairley, Director of Medicine for the Second AIF, and Colonel J. S. K. Boyd, Director of Pathology for the British forces in the Middle East, both outstanding experts in tropical diseases.

Shortly after I had returned to Corps Headquarters, I was transferred as a physician to the 2/1 Casualty Clearing Station (2/1 CCS), which was located in Nazareth as a field hospital for Australian soldiers involved in the Syrian campaign, which was developed to oust the Vichy French, who then occupied Syria and Lebanon. Since many of the patients suffered from malaria or dysentery, I set up a small laboratory and carried out malaria diagnosis by examination of thick films. While there, my colleagues called me ‘Noffie’ (an abbreviation of Anopheles, the malaria mosquito), a nickname that stuck until I moved to New Guinea as a malariologist. At the conclusion of the Syrian campaign, the Unit moved to Beirut, where it set up in what was said to have been the only mental hospital in the Middle East, at Asfurieh, about 20 km to the east of Beirut. We were there for six months. I made friends with an American microbiologist who worked in the American University in Beirut, and also with a well-to-do Lebanese family named Hitti, with whom I spent several very pleasant weekends at their country home in the mountains.

During this period Professor Sydney Sunderland, who had succeeded Wood Jones as Professor of Anatomy at the University of Melbourne, entered into negotiations with me and the Army authorities in Australia to secure my release, so that I could return to Australia and take up the position of Senior Lecturer in his department.

I replied saying that my current commitments were such that I could not accept his offer, but that I looked forward to joining him after the War. However, after my experience with malaria in New Guinea (see below), I had decided that research in infectious diseases, not anatomy or physical anthropology, was to be my post-war activity. I therefore did not respond to a later invitation from the University of Adelaide to apply for the vacant chair of anatomy.  

With the entry of Japan into the War, Prime Minister Curtin insisted that all Australian troops except the 9th Division, which was part of Montgomery's force at El Alamein fighting against Rommel, should immediately return to Australia. I came back as the medical officer for a transport battalion on a small and very old ship, the Pundit, leaving from Suez on 8 February, 1942. We stopped for a week in Colombo, while many passenger ships and a protective fleet of warships was assembled. By the end of the first day at sea after leaving Colombo the fleet was almost out of sight; Pundit could not keep up. The fleet commander signalled, ‘Goodbye, Good luck’ and steamed away. There were some scares about Japanese submarines, and we steamed ahead at full speed (12 knots an hour!) but, fortunately, these were false alarms. A couple of other memories of that trip were that, on the fortnightly payday, all the troops of the transport battalion would play two-up until by five o'clock all the money was redistributed, and that I read several quite substantial books, including H. A. L Fisher's 1,300-page A History of Europe. We lived on bully beef and biscuits, and I lost about a stone and a half on the trip. Finally, as I remember it, it took us about seven days to cover the last 350 nautical miles, until we disembarked at Fremantle. Looking over the side, the water seemed to be moving ahead of the ship. Pundit never left Fremantle; it was not considered to be seaworthy. From Perth troops from the eastern states took the train across the Nullabor, arriving in Adelaide on 6 April, 1942, where I took leave with the family at 42 Alexandra Avenue.

he 2/1 CCS set up a small hospital at Ipswich, near Brisbane, and, soon after that, when my leave was over, I rejoined them. One day, Brigadier Fairley visited the Unit and asked me whether I would like to become a hospital pathologist. With visions of six months in Sydney for a training course, I had no hesitation in accepting. Instead, a few days later I found myself on the narrow-gauge train steaming north to Hughenden, in Central Queensland. I was the only male on the train, but there were a couple of hundred women, nurses moving up to the tented 2/2 AGH. I did not talk to any of them, but I remember seeing a particularly attractive nurse combing her long hair; she was later to become my wife. I was replacing Major (later Colonel) E. V. (Bill) Keogh, who had been pathologist there when the hospital was at Kantara, in Palestine. When the troops returned to Australia he was appointed Director of Hygiene and Pathology at Land Headquarters in Melbourne and, as such, was my boss until the end of the War. One of the surgeons at 2/2 AGH was Major Edgar King, who was appointed Professor of Pathology at the University of Melbourne at the end of the War, so my principal worry, that I did not have skills in histology, was relieved. Promoted to Major on 10 November, 1942, I worked at the 2/2 AGH for about nine months, during which time there was a constant stream of patients from New Guinea, most with malaria or dysentery. I published three papers (of mediocre quality) in the Medical Journal of Australia as the result of my work at 2/2 AGH.

It turned out that the young woman with the long hair who I had noticed on the train was Sister Ellen Margaret (Bobbie) Roberts, who, in June 1945, was to receive the honour of Associate of the Royal Red Cross for her work in the 2/2 AGH blood bank (see below). There was not much demand for blood transfusions in Hughenden, and she was assigned to help me with haematology and malaria diagnosis. Major Patrick de Burgh, who was to succeed Professor Hugh Ward as Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Sydney, ran a Mobile Bacteriological Laboratory near the hospital, and he and I examined Bobbie for her skill in thick film diagnosis of malaria; she passed with flying colours. Thereafter, she worked for a few hours each day in my laboratory.

On 3 December, 1942, the tented hospital at Hughenden was hit by a cyclone. Every tent was blown over.

My laboratory, one of the very few wooden buildings, was tipped sideways but held up by the water pipe leading to the laboratory tap. After a few days, the tents were re-erected, but early in January 1943 the hospital was moved to Rocky Creek, inland from Cairns on the Atherton Tableland, which was high enough to be free of Anopheles mosquitoes (Anopheles punctulatus, an effective vector, was common in Cairns).

Ted Ford had carried out malaria surveys in New Guinea before the War. To find out exactly what was happening in the field in New Guinea, Colonel Keogh posted him as Deputy Director of Hygiene and Pathology at Port Moresby, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In the campaign at Milne Bay, in September 1942, relatively untrained Australian troops had achieved the first defeat of the Japanese on land; they later suffered severe casualties from malaria (quinine was ineffective as a suppressive drug against New Guinea strains of malignant tertian malaria). Early in December, Ford sought and obtained an interview with the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Army, General (later Field-Marshal Sir) Thomas Blamey. In his quiet persuasive way, Ford convinced Blamey that, unless malaria was controlled, the army in New Guinea would be totally destroyed by the disease. Blamey acted immediately. New Routine Orders dealing with malaria, prepared by Keogh with Ford's assistance, were promulgated and enforced. To provide expert advice and dramatise the importance of malaria, three new posts of malariologist were established to supplement the work of the Assistant Directors of Hygiene. In March 1943, Ford was appointed senior malariologist, based in Port Moresby, and two other medical officers, Major J. C. English and myself, were appointed malariologists.

I moved up to Port Moresby in April 1943 and initially shared an office there with Ford.

In July, I moved to Buna, on the north coast, where troops were preparing for the Lae-Finschhafen campaign.

At the conclusion of the Lae-Finschhafen campaign, the Seventh Division was withdrawn to the Atherton Tablelands and I also went back, by air. Because there were very few people aboard the plane, the pilot let me have a short spell at the ‘wheel’. My memory of that was a realisation that even slight movements of the controls would result in surprising changes in altitude.

I arrived back in Townsville in August 1944, staying at the 2/2 AGH but pursuing my own work. Colonel Keogh had arranged that I should come down to Melbourne for six weeks from October and work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, where Macfarlane Burnet was now the Director. I thought it best if I could bring a small problem with me, and took advantage of the fact that an old Adelaide University colleague and friend of mine, John Funder, was working there on a newly discovered variety of typhus, a rickettsial disease called North Queensland tick typhus. This had been discovered by doctors working at 2/2 AGH while I was in New Guinea (Andrew et al., 1946). Before going down to Melbourne, I therefore worked in the field with staff of a Malaria Control Unit and an Entomology Research Unit to collect sera and ectoparasites from a range of wild animals in an effort to discover the reservoir of this newly-discovered zoonotic disease, and I took this material to Melbourne for testing. At the Hall Institute I carried out complement fixation tests on these sera, using an antigen prepared from yolk sacs infected with the North Queensland tick typhus rickettsiae. Eight animals, of five different species, gave positive results; five of the positives came from a localized area of rain forest, which was also the site of infection of several human cases (Fenner, 1946). I later found that Keogh had suggested to Burnet that this would be an opportunity for him to decide whether he wanted to recruit me as a research worker at the end of the War.

Captain Bobbie Roberts had been sent from the 2/2 AGH to the Heidelberg Military Hospital in Melbourne for the period 8 September to 8 December, 1944, to give classes on blood transfusion. This overlapped with my spell at the Hall Institute.

Almost immediately after I arrived in Melbourne, I proposed to her in a little room at the Heidelberg Hospital. Since she was a Roman Catholic and I was an atheist, I was given a lecture by a Catholic priest. Three days later, we were married in a side chapel of the Catholic Cathedral, with a former laboratory assistant of mine, Lieutenant Mavis Freeman, and Bobbie’s closest friend, Nurse Reuben Warner, as witnesses.

Major Kevin Brennan, an officer in Keogh's section at Victoria Barracks, kindly let us live for three weeks in his house, which was vacant at the time. Reflecting the religious intolerance then common in Adelaide, my mother was initially very upset that I should marry a Catholic but, after they became acquainted, they became very close friends. My father, on the other hand, wrote her a warm letter, saying that ‘Life is too short, and too full of pitfalls, to waste any opportunity of happiness’. I returned to Atherton on 24 November, Bobbie went to the LHQ Medical Research Unit in Cairns on 8 December.

I disembarked in Morotai on 16 April, 1945. While I was on the ship and overseas, Bobbie and I wrote to each other every day. I was not able to keep her letters but, unbeknownst to me, she kept all of mine, organized by the month and tied together in neat bundles kept in a drawer next to her bed. I became aware of them when she was in bed with advanced pulmonary secondaries from a colon cancer. When I found her reading one, in October 1995, she looked at me with an expression of such deep love that I could not bear to read the letters, until October 2001.

13/04/1945     Recommended for Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
                      for "Technical administration of malaria control in New Guinea"
                      on the recommendation of Colonel G. W. G. Maitland, DDMS, 2 Aust Corps.

19/07/1945     London Gazette & Commonwealth Gazette - awarded MBE
                     The citation read:
                     "Major Fenner has been Malariologist attached to NEW GUINEA FORCE, 1943–44
                      and has been responsible for the coordinated control of malaria throughout those
                      areas of PAPUA and NEW GUINEA occupied by Australian troops.
                      In the Technical Administration of the Malaria Control Units he has exhibited a
                      devotion to duty exceeding that normally required of an officer and has contributed
                      to the scientific knowledge of malaria control in the Army.
                      Through the coordinated functioning of the Malaria Control Units under Major Fenner’s
                      administration and the improved anti-malaria discipline in the Force, the incidence of
                      malaria in the troops is now reduced to a minimum."

For the rest of the War, until 27 August, 1945, I was based at 1 Aust Corps Headquarters on Morotai, and was involved with malaria control in the attacks on Brunei Bay, Tarakan and Labuan. Throughout these campaigns, the malaria rates were very low, with only 97 cases being admitted to medical units between April 6 and September 7, from a force of 17,000. After hostilities ceased, I visited Brunei, Labuan, Tarakan, Balikpapan and Sarawak. With Francis Ratcliffe, I organized some trials of mosquito control by dispersion of DDT from aircraft. As reflected in my letters to Bobbie, there were long periods of boredom and anxiety about the job with Macfarlane Burnet at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Eventually, on 10 July, 1945, I received a letter from Burnet. The relevant part read:

"The establishment of the Chair of Experimental Medicine [at the University of Melbourne, specifically for Burnet] has made it possible for me to look forward to having a full time senior man [on a Francis Haley Fellowship] in that department. The primary interest is epidemiology in the broad sense…it must be concerned with cancer, T.B. or other widespread and important human diseases. Would you be interested in a preliminary offer of such an appointment at a salary of £1000 p.a. to start as soon as your release from the Army? You would have a very considerable latitude in regard to choice of a particular field…There is a specially good opportunity in experimental epidemiology for the study of a virus disease (ectromelia of mice). In January last we found that this disease was antigenically almost identical with smallpox and vaccinia. The disease is spontaneously infective for mice…Any appointment would, of course, be subject to University approval."

I had no problem in replying immediately, noting that, as far as release from the Army was concerned, I should be in the first group, having had five years service. On 30 July, I received a reply from Burnet and a request to should send him a curriculum vitae and list of published work, hoping to satisfy the University that advertisement was unnecessary. On 27 August, I received a letter from Burnet confirming my appointment as Senior Haley Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Medicine of the University of Melbourne, on a salary of £1000 p.a.

Bobbie stayed in Perth until her discharge from the Army on 1 November, 1945, after 2,122 days service, outside Australia for 696 days. I had been posted to the 115th Heidelberg Military Hospital on 19 October, so at the conclusion of my leave I went back to Victoria. I spent most of my spare time reading the most comprehensive book on viral diseases of humans, van Rooyen and Rhodes (1948), and anything that I could get on ectromelia virus, since this was to be what I would work on with Burnet. Eventually, on 31 January, 1946, I was discharged from the Army, with 2,059 days service, outside Australia for 1,086 days. I started work at the Hall Institute on 1 February. We had found a suitable flat in Milswyn Street, South Yarra, just opposite the southern entrance to the Royal Victorian Botanic Gardens. I developed the habit of walking through the Gardens and along the bank of the River Yarra to Elizabeth Street, where I would catch a tram to the Hall Institute, which was located in a wing of the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Initially Bobbie worked part-time in the Alfred Hospital, just to the south of our flat, where her best friend, another Western Australian nurse, Jean Freeman, was working. Later, Bobbie joined me as an unpaid technical assistant.

We adopted as a month-old baby, a girl who was born on 27 June, 1950, and named her Marilyn Aldus (Bobbie's mother's maiden name) Fenner. We never enquired about her biological parents, and she has never wished to do so. Some time later, while we were still in Melbourne, Stanley Williams came to see us again and told us that he thought we should adopt my niece, the daughter of my younger brother Tom and his first wife, Beverley (née Slaney). Beverley had died in tragic circumstances, while Tom was away with the Royal Australian Navy, but their only child (Victoria, Vicki, born 1 March, 1943) had been saved from the fire. Tom married Margaret Legge a few years later, but Stan told us that Margaret, who had two children by Tom, was treating Vicki very badly, and that we should adopt her. Tom had no objections to transferring Vicki to our care, so we followed his advice and formally adopted Vicki when she was eight years old.

Bobbie and I and the children moved to Canberra late in November 1952, in a Morris Minor and a Ford Prefect, to a University-owned house located at 3 Torres Street, Red Hill. Later, Bobbie's mother, who was then confined to a wheelchair, came from Perth to live with us.

Tragedy:  30 March 1958 dear Vicki committed suicide with a gun stating:  ‘Life is not worth living’. The only possible reason for this statement that I could think of was that she had read Neville Shute's book, On the Beach, which tells of the destruction of the world by nuclear war and which I had just read. 

Honours & Awards
1954    The Australian Academy of Science was granted its Royal Charter in February 1954;
           Eccles was a Founding Fellow and Ennor and I were in the first group of elected Fellows.
1957    Harvey Lecturer, Harvey Society of New York.
1958    Fellow of The Royal Society of London.
           Listerian Oration, South Australian Branch of the British Medical Association.
1959    Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
           Walter Burfitt Medal, Royal Society of New South Wales.
1960    Foundation Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge.
1961    Leeuwenhoek Lecturer, The Royal Society of London.
1964    Mueller Medal, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.
           Honorary MD, Monash University.
1967    Matthew Flinders Medal and Lecture, Australian Academy of Science. 
1967    Britannica Australia Award for Medicine.
1969    Life Sciences Lecturer at the University of California at Davis.
1970    Lilly Lecture, Royal College of Physicians, London.
           CIBA Lecturer in Microbial Biochemistry, Rutgers University, New Jersey.
1971    Victor Coppleson Lecturer, Australian Post-Graduate Medical Foundation.
           Fogarty Scholar, US National Institutes of Health.
1973    David Memorial Lecture, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. 

Both of the awards I received during my period with CRES recognized work done while I was in the JCSMR.

In 1976 I was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), for services to Medical Research.

In 1977 I was elected a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Bobbie had always been a moderate cigarette smoker and when I was head of the Department of Microbiology I used always bring her back duty-free cigarettes when I had been overseas. But as soon as I became Director, she gave up smoking and told me to get rid of all the cigarettes in the house. Her initial distress, hunting everywhere for one more cigarette, brought home to me how addictive smoking is for some people (I had never smoked). Bobbie was very active in a range of community activities. Almost immediately after our arrival in Canberra, she was invited to become a Councillor of the Canberra Mothercraft Society. As a Triple Certificated Nursing Sister, she served with distinction, representing the Society as a delegate to the National Council of Women of the ACT and for many years was a member of the Executive. She supervised the monthly clothing sales for the National Council of Women and helped with the teas that were given every 'Pension Thursday' to the early pioneers of Canberra, before the advent of Senior Citizens Clubs. She was a member of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association, helping many people from those areas settle into life here, and as one of the first members of the Ex-Servicewomen's Sub-Branch of the Returned Services League of the ACT, she represented the RSL on the Services Trust Welfare Fund, on which she served with distinction for many years. Among the many charities that Bobbie helped regularly were the Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Smith Family, the Knitting Guild, the Save the Children Fund and UNICEF, which in 1995 recognized her many years of service with an award.

As a close friend has said, 'It was Bobbie's way to "say it with flowers"' and the garden at 8 Monaro Crescent was the venue for many fetes and garden stalls, for many organizations, including the Canberra YWCA Annual Garden Sale, which raised thousands of dollars annually, and she gave help with flowers and plants to fetes held by Legacy and the Boys' and Girls' Grammar Schools.' Besides gardening, her hobbies included tennis, golf and bridge, and she was a member of the University Ladies Drawing Room Committee, the Commonwealth Club and Friends of the National Gallery. In January 1980, she was decorated with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) at a ceremony at Government house, for community service.

In 1989 she was found to have colon cancer, and had a colonectomy, with good results for several years. Then, in 1994 she was found to have extensive secondaries in the lungs, which progressed in spite of radium treatment and chemotherapy. For some months she was confined to bed, at home, but in October 1995 she was sent to the Respite Care Facility, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. She gradually got worse, but insisted that I should go to London in early December to receive the Copley Medal of The Royal Society, although at that stage she was at death's door. She died on 28 December, 1995.

To many, she will be long remembered as a loving friend. This is well encapsulated in a letter from Kunang Helmi, the eldest daughter of Indonesian Ambassador Helmi, who was a near neighbour in the late 1950s: 'In fact what I really want to say is how much I love you Aunt Bobbie, for what you are and what you did. You set me a shining example of what kindness and generosity are about—I often think of you in my prayers, as do Rana and Rio [Kunang's younger siblings].'

Although it was long expected, I was devastated by her death. Company at the John Curtin School each week day was a great help, and after there had been time to repaint the interiors of the main house and the extension that we had built in 1981–82, I moved into the extension and Marilyn and her family moved into the main house, which has proved an excellent arrangement for both of us. Even so, it took about three years before I could adjust to Bobbie's absence and, only then, I told myself: 'I see so many women who have lost their husbands and adjust to life as widows; I must adjust, as a widower.'

Honours and Awards:
1980    Honorary Life Member, Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases

On Australia Day 1989, it was announced that I had been awarded the highest honour in Australia, Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), for service to medical science, to public health and to the environment.

1991    Emeritus Member, American Society for Virology
1991    Honorary Fellow, Indian Virological Society
1993    Honorary Member, Australian Veterinary Association
1996    Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology
1998    Patron, Nature and Society Forum
1999    Honorary Fellow, Australasian College of Tropical Medicine
2000    Patron, Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases
2001    Patron, Sustainable Population Australia
2002    Honorary Fellow, University House, ANU

In 2002, I was approached concerning nomination for the 2003 Australian of the Year Award. I said that I did not want to be nominated for that award because, if selected, it carried too many responsibilities for a person my age, but I would agree to nomination in the Senior Australian of the Year category. The nominator agreed, but the local Australia Day Committee ignored her proposal and selected me to be ACT Australian of the Year, 2003, and I am proud of that award; fortunately I was not chosen for the national award.

2004    Honorary Life Member, Australian Conservation Foundation

In November 2005, I received a letter stating that I was one of four finalists for the ACT Senior Australian of the Year, 2006, and later that month I was selected for that award. At a ceremony in Canberra on 25 January, 2006, the representative of Queensland, a nurse of Aboriginal descent, was chosen from the seven State and Territory nominees to be Senior Australian of the Year, 2006.

Between 1980 and 2006, I gave 107 lectures, 25 to overseas audiences and the rest within Australia. The majority of the lectures covered general topics, 14 were on smallpox, six on monkeypox, and four on mousepox. Over the same period I also gave 38 newspaper interviews, always in response to enquiries by journalists. 

Submitted by Julianne T Ryan, thanks to Fenner Family history details.  05/01/2017.  Lest we forget.


Biography contributed by Annette Summers



Frank Johannes (John) Fenner was born at Ballarat, on 21st December 1914.  He was one of five children of Charles and Peggy Fenner.  His father was Principal of the Ballarat School of Mines. The family moved to Adelaide, in 1916, when his father was appointed as Superintendent of Technical Education, later to become Director of Education.  Fenner was educated at Rose Park Primary School and Thebarton Technical School and played A grade hockey.  He studied at the University of Adelaide, graduating MB BS in 1938.   During his undergraduate years, he participated in anthropological expeditions in the study of aboriginal skulls at the South Australian Museum, later to become the basis for his MD thesis. Fenner undertook his resident year at the RAH in 1939 but decided to pursue a career in science, not clinical medicine.

Fenner, foreseeing a need for experience in malaria studied for the Diploma in Tropical Medicine, in Sydney and enlisted in the 2/AIF, on 9th May 1940, on his return to Adelaide.  All but three of his Adelaide University cohort enlisted for armed service.  He was posted to 2/6th FdAmb at Woodside. Fenner along with Noel Bonnin set up a small laboratory in a disused hut in the camp.  They experimented with the use of local application of sulphanilamide in guinea pigs with gas gangrene.  They published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia which prompted further work in the USA.  They were forced to stop this activity when the CO, Lieut. Col E. H. Beare discovered their actions. His unit sailed for Palestine, in December 1940, but because of his expertise in tropical medicine, he was transferred to HQ with the DDMS.  Fenner then transferred to 2/1st CCS, in Nazareth, where he established a malaria diagnostic laboratory.  From here he was posted to Beirut.  With Japan's entry into the war, he returned to Australia on the SS Pundit and joined 2/1st CCS, Ipswich, Queensland. He became the hospital pathologist for 2/2 AGH and was promoted major in November 1942. The importance of containing malaria was recognised by General Blamey, and Fenner was appointed as a malariologist. Fenner moved to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and later to Buna for the Lae-Finschhafen campaign with 7 and 9 Div from September 1943 until March 1944.  He was awarded an MBE for his malaria work in July 1945.  He returned to 2/2nd AGH, in Townsville, in August 1944. His next posting was to HQ 1 Aust Corps in Morotai overseeing malaria control in Brunei Bay, Labuan and Tarakan.  He returned to Australia, in August 1945, with a final posting to 115 Heidelberg Military Hospital and discharged in January 1946.

Fenner had worked with Red Cross Sister Ellen Margaret (Bobbie) Roberts when he was at 2/2nd AGH in 1942. They met again in Melbourne and married in November 1944.   He took up a post at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research and began his lifelong interest in poxviruses. He was awarded a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, in 1949.  He returned to Australia and assumed the post of Professor of Microbiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University (ANU), resuming his work on poxviruses in particular Myxomatosis to control the rabbit plagues in Australia. He became Director of the Centre for Resources and Environmental Studies at the ANU from 1973 until his retirement in1979. Frank John Fenner died on 22nd November 2010, his wife Bobbie had died, in 1994. They had adopted two children, Victoria, who died of suicide aged 15, and Marilyn Aldus who survived her parents.


Blood, Sweat and Fears III: Medical Practitioners South Australia, who Served in World War 2. 

Swain, Jelly, Verco, Summers. Open Books Howden, Adelaide 2019. 

Uploaded by Annette Summers AO RFD