PDF file Download PDF Article

Published: 10 September 2014

A brief history of Australian microbiology

Paul R Young

Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre
School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences
University of Queensland
Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia
Email: p.young@uq.edu.au

Acquired over a long period of time, Australia has an enviable record of involvement in the discipline of microbiology and continues to punch above its weight in terms of research output and translational outcomes. A comprehensive review of those involved, the characters and institutions, their achievements, successes and failures is far beyond the scope of this short article. So instead, a snapshot of a few of the interesting highlights from one person’s perspective will be provided. I apologise in advance for any omission of your favourite story, character or advance in the field of microbiology that flavours your own view of this enthralling area of Australia’s scientific legacy.

The Australian population’s engagement with microbes and their consequences obviously started well before European settlement. As with many long-established cultures across the world from the ancient Egyptians who used honey as an antiseptic and henna as a treatment for leprosy and smallpox, to the Chinese who have used medicinal herbs for millennia, the Australian Aboriginal population had their bush medicine. An extensive array of treatments and cures for a wide range of diseases were honed over thousands of years. Unfortunately, much of this traditional knowledge has been lost with the fragmentation of their oral history following European settlement. But we do know of some of these treatments. Tea tree oil obtained by boiling the leaves of the paper-bark tree was incorporated in a tea for throat infections while eucalyptus oil from gum leaves was used for fevers and chills, a remedy that is still in use today to ameliorate the symptoms of a cold. The bright orange desert mushroom was sucked to cure a sore mouth and as a treatment for babies with oral thrush, and a tea brewed by boiling Emubush leaves was used to cleanse cuts and sores and as a mouth wash. Extracts of this plant have now been shown to have antibiotic properties. The fruit of the kangaroo apple was used as a poultice because of its anti-inflammatory properties and this plant has now been shown to contain the steroid, solasodine, important in the production of cortisone. There are many more examples of Aboriginal bush medicine treatments for microbial control that have now been documented but almost certainly many more are lost to us forever.

But our ‘modern’ concept of the science of microbiology did begin with European settlement. In these early years it was based largely around the consequences of the introduction into a continent that had been isolated up until that time, of new plant and animal species, as well as the settlers themselves, and their respective infectious diseases. So much of this early history was in applied microbiology, driven by the pressing need to diagnose and control these diseases. Indeed the first microbiology laboratory in Australia was a privately owned venture, the Macleay Laboratory, opened in 1874 and located on the harbour in Sydney. Its primary role was water testing, a reflection of the problems of over-crowding and sanitation that the colony had faced for many years.

However, the practise of microbiology, or bacteriology as it was then known, had been in full swing much earlier than this through efforts to control diseases such as scarlet fever, typhoid, cholera and smallpox that were all too common in the fledgling colony. Remarkably, it was only 5 years after Edward Jenner published his studies on cowpox vaccination as a preventative for smallpox (1798) that the Sydney colony’s assistant surgeon Mr John Savage attempted to vaccinate orphans with his own experimental ‘Cow Pock’ preparation. Although this was initially unsuccessful, within a year a viable source of cowpox within the colony was established. The vaccine was subsequently maintained by inoculating unvaccinated individuals and passing the ‘lymph’ from arm-to-arm. Delivery of the vaccine took on many innovative forms. In 1818, the state and church came together with the Governor of the day directing that clergymen perform the inoculations at baptisms. One surgeon reported in 1841 that in order to maintain the supply of the vaccine, he conducted the necessary serial passage in residents of the ‘Female Factory’, a convict establishment located in the area of modern-day Parramatta. In the same year, a surprisingly forward thinking Governor Gipps proclaimed free vaccination for the residents of Sydney, but with a clever twist. A shilling was initially charged for the vaccine, but this was refunded when the vaccinated child was subsequently presented, complete with scab signifying successful inoculation and providing a resource for further inoculations. While these measures reduced the impact of smallpox infections, occasional outbreaks continued to occur resulting in the establishment in the 1880s of public health authorities dedicated to its control. At the same time a cowpox vaccine factory was established in Royal Park, Victoria by a veterinarian using the original bovine host as the production vessel. Across the world, the practice of arm-to-arm transfer in humans that had dominated for nearly a century as the means by which the vaccine was maintained was being phased out by the late 1800s. It is significant to note that some 60–70 years later, one of Australia’s premier virologists, Sir Frank Fenner led the WHO Smallpox Eradication program, and was the one who was able to officially announce on the 8th May, 1980, the removal from the planet of this centuries old scourge as a naturally transmitted disease.

Arguably one of the most remarkable microbiological stories of Australia’s early history surrounds none other than the esteemed Louis Pasteur. It involved political intrigue, scientific jealousy, protracted fights over funding, the rabbit plague and somewhat surprisingly, Australian Federation and the origins of Australians’ taste for beer! It all started in 1859 with a British-borne pastoralist in Geelong, Victoria by the name of Thomas Austin, who released 24 rabbits, 72 partridges and five hares in an attempt to bring a touch of his native England to his property. Within 20 years the rabbit population had exploded, reaching plague proportions in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. The numbers were estimated to be in excess of a billion and by 1887 had become a significant threat to the rural economy. With the repeated failure of large-scale eradication campaigns, the NSW premier Sir Henry Parkes proposed an international competition for a microbiological solution – the prize was £25,000 (equivalent to about $10 million in today’s currency). There were over 1,500 entries from around the world and in order to decide on a preferred approach that met the needs of all the Australian colonists, Sir Henry formed a Rabbit Commission, a judging panel onto which he invited representatives from each of the Australian colonies and New Zealand. It is widely suspected that this was the model on which he later formed his constitutional convention on Federation.

On the other side of the world, Louis Pasteur had fallen on difficult financial times as a result of changing politics and loss of patronage. A lack of funds meant that his dream of an Institut Pasteur in Paris was on hold. But after his wife pointed out to him an advertisement of the rabbit plague competition in a Parisian paper, he saw his rescue. Pasteur had earlier conducted experiments on chicken cholera, which he had shown efficiently dispatched rabbits and was convinced that he would win the competition. He instructed his nephew, Adrien Loir to conduct confirmatory field trials over the Christmas of 1887 and with the success of those experiments was sent to Australia leading a three-man Pasteur team to claim the prize. The team was sent with funds to cover their expenses for six weeks in the colony, however on arrival in Melbourne they struck a number of problems. There was resistance in NSW to the introduction into the country of what was then thought to be an exotic agent (perhaps a forerunner of our strict quarantine ethos) and the terms of the competition required field-testing of the proposed approaches for up to 12 months. Loir feared that he would have to return to Paris empty-handed. But it transpired that a local brewer, Thomas Aitken was at that very time, preparing to sail for Denmark to learn from the Carlsberg company the secrets of the new techniques of yeast cultivation and fermentation, recently introduced by Pasteur himself. On hearing that Pasteur’s nephew was in town, Aitken offered Loir £250 to teach his staff the Pasteur technology. With this, Loir had enough funds to head to Sydney for the extended period. The result of the happy coincidence of Loir landing in Melbourne was Victoria Bitter and a shift in Australian beer tastes from ale to lager. The quarantine question was answered by Parkes who set up the Pasteur team on Rodd Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour.

However, despite trials showing that chicken cholera was effective in killing rabbits the prize was never awarded and instead, it was decided that rabbit fencing was the answer. Many of the judges on the Commission had their own agendas – two were importers of the barbed wire that would become the back-bone of the fencing approach, one was the president of the poultry farmers association fearful of the effects of chicken cholera and two of the judges were past students of Pasteur’s arch rival in Europe, Robert Koch. Rabbits remain a problem in outback Australia to this day, despite two later attempts to eradicate them with microbiological approaches; myxoma virus in the 1950s from a team led by Frank Fenner and the CSIRO’s 1990s effort with rabbit hemorrhagic disease (rabbit calicivirus disease, RCD). Despite the fact that he did not succeed in his original objective, the ever-resourceful Loir still managed to leave a considerable impact from his time in Sydney. During the deliberations of the Commission he conducted research for the Queensland delegation on what was referred to at the time as ‘Cumberland disease’ of livestock. He determined that it was in fact anthrax and as Pasteur had already developed an anthrax vaccine Loir proposed that the Parkes government support a vaccine trial. The trial was successful and the vaccine was rolled out to the graziers at a handsome profit. In order to generate sufficient doses the Rodd Island laboratories were expanded and a Pasteur Institute of Australia was established. The profits from the vaccine amounted to more than the original prize for the rabbit competition and so Pasteur was able to finish his Paris Institute. A little known fact is that because of Loir’s efforts, the Sydney based Pasteur Institute was actually the first in the world, operating before the Paris headquarters opened in 1888. It was moved to Double Bay in 1896 but only survived for another 2 years, with the anthrax vaccine manufacture eventually being taken over by another Sydney based group.

The serious issues of livestock and crop diseases were not unique to NSW and to address these problems in Queensland, the Stock Institute was established in Brisbane in 1893. The role of the first Director was actually offered to Adrien Loir in an attempt to lure him back to Australia. However despite his wish to take up the post, his wife refused to return and so he had to reluctantly decline, instead travelling to the French colony of Tunis in North Africa where he established another Pasteur Institute which is still in operation today. The Brisbane Stock Institute became the Bacteriological Institute in 1899. Tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue afflicted the far north and in 1910 the Institute for Tropical Medicine was established in Townsville – the first medical research institute in the country.

During the early part of the 20th Century, government and universities played integral and connected roles in the development of microbiology in Australia. Microbiological research was conducted in universities with departments usually working closely with hospitals, contributing directly to diagnostic laboratory activities. The University of Melbourne medical school taught bacteriology in the early 1890s, and provided the diagnostic services for The Royal Melbourne Hospital. This activity arose out of the intersection of teaching and research in medicine, veterinary science, science and dentistry with a separate microbiology focus not being a feature of this dynamic until many years later. Unlike the University of Sydney, where there was no centralised teaching of microbiology, both the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne established Departments of Microbiology from which students in medicine, science and dentistry were taught. The universities of Adelaide and Western Australia formalised their research and teaching in microbiology somewhat later, 1920 for medical students in Adelaide and 1923 for agriculture students in Western Australia – and for medicine and science students in 1956. The University of Tasmania introduced microbiology into the Faculty of Agricultural Science in 1962.

By the 1950s, there was a growing number of Australian microbiologists who were teaching and conducting research in microbiology, primarily arising from the increased activities of both teaching institutions and government agencies. For some time, this group had been meeting at the Congresses organised each year by the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS), a body founded in 1888. With the growth of the discipline, the perceived need for a more focused grouping and the example of the biochemists who had recently formed their own society, discussions were held among a group of microbiologists at the 1958 Adelaide meeting about the possibility of a society dedicated to microbiology. The meeting was chaired by Eric French and the outcome of deliberations was that an association of microbiologists in Australia would be formed. A working group developed a proposal which was presented within a week of that first meeting and it was resolved to establish a learned society that would be dedicated to the science of microbiology, to the fostering of knowledge, the exchange of ideas and the promotion of the discipline. A constitution was drafted, state branches inaugurated and in the following year, in May 1959, the first General Meeting of the Australian Society for Microbiology was held in Melbourne. The office bearers who were elected in that first iteration of the Society Executive were a star grouping – Sir Macfarlane Burnet was elected President, Sydney Rubbo Vice President, Jack Harris Honorary Secretary and Nancy Atkinson Honorary Treasurer. The ASM was born. It was not until 1976 that the Society became incorporated, a move that accompanied a broadening of membership to embrace all practicing microbiologists and a new professionalism. The Society is undergoing new challenges in the modern era of discipline specialisation but I am certain that these challenges will be embraced and treated as opportunities to further grow its role as Australia’s peak body in microbiology.

There is so much more that could be written about the history of microbiology in Australia, our many celebrated researchers and practitioners, our Nobel prize winners, our key role in the development of the first antibiotics, the development of new vaccines, antiviral therapies, microbial discovery – the list of achievements and milestones is very long indeed. The science of microbiology in Australia is in a remarkably healthy state and we are in exciting times.


Rood, S. and Sheedy, K. (2009) A culture of learned professionals. Microbiology Australia 30.

Dando-Collins, S. (2008) Pasteur’s Gambit. Random House, Sydney.

Weston, K.M. et al. (2014) Smallpox vaccination, colonial Sydney and serendipity. Med. J. Aust. 200, 295–297.


Paul Young is Professor of Virology and Head of the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland and is the Immediate-Past President of the ASM. He is the current President of the Asia-Pacific Society for Medical Virology. His research interests are focused on understanding the molecular basis of dengue virus induced pathogenesis, improved diagnostics as well as vaccine and therapeutic control strategies for the flaviviruses, dengue virus and West Nile virus and also respiratory syncytial virus. His laboratory is also investigating the current invasion of the koala genome by a novel retrovirus and what this can tell us about cancer induction and viral evolution.

RSS Free subscription to our email Contents Alert. Or register for the free RSS feed.