16 September 2011

Death of professor frank fenner, SPA patron

MEMBERS of Sustainable Population Australia have been saddened to learn of the death of Professor Frank Fenner, one of Australia’s most distinguished scientists, an ardent conservationist and a Patron and strong supporter of SPA over many years.

Frank attended each and every SPA meeting in his home town, Canberra, until just a few meetings ago and will be sorely missed. He died on 22 November at the age of 95.

A microbiologist, he was awarded an MBE for his development of malaria control in Papua New Guinea during World War II. He went on to achieve national fame for his work on the development of myxoma virus to control the rabbit plague, and for the leading role he played with the World Health Organisation campaign to eradicate the smallpox virus.

He was a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and director of the ANU’s John Curtin School of Medical Research from 1967 to 1973, and from 1973 to 1979 foundation director Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies.

Among numerous awards and prizes were the Albert Einstein World Award for Science in 2000 and the Prime Minister’s Science Prize in 2002.

Towards the end of his life, Frank became increasingly pessimistic about the ability of humans to live sustainably on the planet. In June this year, in an interview with The Australian, he blamed the combinatioin of the population explosion and unbridled consumption for the “irreversible” march of humanity towards extinction.

“We’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island,” he said “The Aborigines showed that without science and the production of carbon dioxide and global warming, they could survive for 40,000 or 50,000 years. But the world can’t. The human species is likely to go the same way as many of the species that we’ve seen disappear.

Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years. A lot of other animals will, too. It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off. Mitigation would slow things down a bit, but there are too many people here already.”

There will be many obituaries written about Frank. Few, if any, will mention his views on population. Many political leaders will praise him – they will be the same political leaders who dismiss anyone opposing population growth as a dreamer. Maybe Frank was right to be pessimistic.

In a citation preceding Frank’s admission to life membership of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2005, SPA Vice-President Dr John Coulter observed “Throughout his long life Frank has been an exceptional scientist who has developed deep insight into the relationship between humans and their supporting environment. He has always been active in sharing and applying this insight”.

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