The scientist and weapons of mass destruction
'Rewind' reveals that Australian Nobel Prize winner, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, was a champion of biological warfare in the 1940s. We open top-secret defence files in which he planned for attacks on the 'teeming hordes' of Asia. And, in a touching twist, we discover why this white supremacist later changed his mind.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Let's turn first to a man who's still seen as one of the very finest minds in our history. His life-saving work on viruses and immunology won him a Nobel Prize in 1960. But there was another very secret and very surprising side to Sir Macfarlane Burnet. Back in the 1940s, when we were afraid of what we called the 'Asian hordes to our north', Macfarlane Burnet took part in government plans to develop weapons of mass destruction - chemical and germ warfare that could be used against our neighbours. It's the story of a brilliant man who took a journey towards the heart of darkness. In January 1947, Australia's leading biological scientist travels down St Kilda Road, Melbourne. His destination is Victoria Barracks, for a top secret meeting of a senior defence committee. He's carrying documents which have the potential to change Australia's destiny. These documents will remain secret for decades, and with good reason. Their mission is a biological and chemical weapons plan for Australia, and the scientist is Frank Macfarlane Burnet.
DR PHILIP DORLING, HISTORIAN: As a professional scientist, he was prepared to give some reasonably cold-blooded advice to the Australian Government about weapons that today would be viewed with repugnance, and indeed back in the 1940s were certainly viewed as morally dubious, and probably considerably worse.
MICHAEL CATHCART: But this very grim and secret chapter of Macfarlane Burnet's life has been wiped from public memory. These days, this Nobel Prize winner is remembered by most Australians as a great humanitarian.
PROFESSOR IAN GUST: I think he was a giant. He was head and shoulders above any other biologist in Australia, he was a virologist of the very highest calibre, he then became an immunologist of the very highest calibre.
CHRISTOPHER SEXTON, BIOGRAPHER - 'BURNET: A LIFE: There was a kind of indefinable aura about the man, and it's not because he was a Nobel laureate, it wasn't because he was this great scientist. There was something very unmistakable about his presence.
MICHAEL CATHCART: This place is full of happy memories for me. It's Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, and I lived here as an undergraduate in the 1970s. And the most famous person in the college at that time was probably Sir Macfarlane Burnet, who was aged well into his 70s at that stage. And I can remember him giving a seminar in this room on the subject of current medical research, and I came away from that evening with the feeling that I'd been in the presence of a man of extraordinary intelligence, of a kind of humanity, a sort of...goodness, really. And I want to understand how that man could have been involved in biological warfare research in the 1940s, and whether it's true that he advocated the use of such weapons. Of course, these were terrifying times. In the Second World War, Australians were facing their grimmest nightmare. We had long imagined that Asia was teeming with potential invaders - all of them looking hungrily at the vast open spaces of Australia. Now that fear had become a
reality. The yellow peril was making its move.
DR PHILIP DORLING: Australia has recently faced the threat of invasion from Japan, the Cold War is developing, the communists are about to take over China, and the mind-set is very much a one of Australia that is isolated and faces a threat from larger, more populous nations in its region.
MICHAEL CATHCART: And this is what really alarmed Burnet as a biologist - the prospect that the populations of Asia were about to explode. Like lots of people, he wondered how a mere 7 million Australians could defend this island continent. In 1946, he wrote -
"There'll be some desperate problems facing Australia if Asiatic peoples are strengthened by adequate nutrition, and by the conquest of infectious disease. Malnutrition and disease in Asia have alone kept coloured populations in check to our north."
MICHAEL CATHCART: This is racism of the most basic kind. He believed that the death of Asians due to hunger and disease was a positive - it kept their population numbers in check. How could he think such things?
DR PHILIP DORLING: Some of his views were reflective of some more conventional wisdom. The difference is then that he then looked at that in terms of what one might do to redress the balance.
MICHAEL CATHCART: But how does Dorling know this? Well, he was researching at the National Archives in Canberra when he came across a reference to a secret defence committee on biological warfare. Its principal adviser was Macfarlane Burnet. But when Philip Dorling attempted to access these top secret documents, the defence department said no. And what's the sensitivity that the department was foreseeing?
DR PHILIP DORLING: Well, the department couldn't initially say what the sensitivity was, because they said that the nature of it was too sensitive to release. Understandably, this pricked my interest.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Philip Dorling appealed against the decision, and finally, 18 months later, he got his chance to discover what was in these top secret defence files.
DR PHILIP DORLING: Sir Macfarlane Burnet and the committee that he was involved in had been contemplating the idea of developing an offensive capability in biological warfare aimed at the agricultural crops of Indonesia and China, and indeed, specifically named Indonesia as a target.
MICHAEL CATHCART: No wonder the defence department was unwilling to release the documents even 60 years later. They include a secret report by Macfarlane Burnet called 'War from a Biological Angle', and it makes chilling reading. "Specifically to the Australian situation, the most effective counter-offensive to threatened invasion by overpopulated Asiatic countries would be directed towards the destruction by biological or chemical means, of tropical food crops."
DR PHILIP DORLING: So he's looking, essentially, at a regional-specific weapon, if you like, that would affect Australia's enemies, but not backfire on us, which has always been one of the difficulties of biological warfare, is that once you let something loose, it may come around and bite you.
MICHAEL CATHCART: So this is the work of a coldly objective scientist. There is no hint of the humanitarian in his thinking, which is why he wanted weapons to target tropical food crops - so that the temperate crops of Australia would be immune. And can we identify why he particularly was drawn into to this?
DR PHILIP DORLING: Sir Macfarlane Burnet first provided advice to the Australian Government about biological warfare during the Second World War, and he was asked to advise on the possible threat from the axis powers to Australia, in terms of biological warfare, and indeed, on the allegations that the Japanese were engaged in biological warfare in China.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Macfarlane Burnet clearly knew that Japan had ravaged China with biological weapons, devastating crops and slaughtering thousands of civilians with anthrax, cholera and bubonic plague.
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MICHAEL CATHCART: Back in Australia, our own crops were under attack. And the invaders were rabbits. But scientists at Australia's leading virus lab, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, had the enemy in their sights. With colleagues at CSIRO, they were developing a potent biological weapon - the deadly myxomatosis virus. Macfarlane Burnet was a key figure at the Institute and would shortly become director and his chief biologist was Frank Fenner. He's a famous microbiologist in his own right. And he's one of the few people alive today who knew Macfarlane Burnet in the 1940s. In fact, the two men were longtime friends.
PROFESSOR FRANK FENNER, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: You'd have to say he was a very shy man. He took quite seriously his social responsibilities.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Like Macfarlane Burnet, Frank Fenner was very aware that their groundbreaking research on myxomatosis had huge public benefit. But what Fenner didn't know was that US defence scientists were adapting their methods for war against another mammal - humans. And now that Frank Fenner knows what the Americans were doing, he's astonished at their ruthlessness.
PROFESSOR FRANK FENNER: If they can kill rabbits like that, we could get something that killed humans like that, it'd be wonderful. (Laughs) That's the sort of attitude you had to have if you were in that game.
MICHAEL CATHCART: So you're actually a pioneer?
PROFESSOR FRANK FENNER: Well, to my surprise. I didn't know that.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Frank Fenner didn't know that his research was being considered in these terms. Among people working in your field after the war, including Macfarlane Burnet, was there an awareness that this kind of research had military applications?
PROFESSOR FRANK FENNER: No. Not at all. And he mentioned it a few times, that influenza, if it could be spread, would be terrible. That 1914-18 kind of influenza.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Finding a cure for the vicious influenza virus that in 1918 killed more people than the Great War, was the focus of Macfarlane Burnet's scientific attention during those postwar years. At the same time, he was engaged in top-secret meetings at Victoria Barracks on germ warfare. And that's the great irony. Macfarlane Burnet was a world leader in virus research. Research that could be used to cure people or to kill them in time of war. And he recognised that deadly potential.
DR PHILIP DORLING: From time to time, in the course of his discussions with government about these issues, he had actually identified influenza as essentially the potentially most potent biological agent.
MICHAEL CATHCART: It's as though until this time, he'd spent all of his professional life looking down a microscope. And down here, it's very simple. For a microbiologist, there are two kinds of populations and they're at war. And when he was called upon to use his expertise to analyse world affairs, he took the little world down the microscope and projected it onto the globe. Would he have seen it as an ethical issue, the development of chemical weapons?
PROFESSOR FRANK FENNER: I think he got to the situation where the...the Australian Government was worried about biological warfare. I could see then that he regarded it as an important social duty to help the defence forces in any way that he could.
MICHAEL CATHCART: But in the mid-'40s, did Ben Chifley's government really believe that it needed to prepare for that kind of attack on Australia?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR WAYNE REYNOLDS, UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE: Ben Chifley, who's quite determined to pool the scientists, to develop the defence science capability and get Australia involved in the development of scientific weapons, asks you to come in as the leader in the field, as Oliphant is with respect to nuclear weapons, and advise us about the possibility of such weapons. Of course he responds to that.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Wayne Reynolds is an expert on Australia's involvement in developing weapons of mass destruction. And we asked him to examine the documents uncovered by Philip Dorling. It appears that in the 1940s and '50s, Macfarlane Burnet made several visits to the top-secret British biological weapons lab at Porton. Imagine what it must've been like, this cloistered lab scientist taking his place at the table with some of Britain's best.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR WAYNE REYNOLDS: Macfarlane Burnet goes to Porton and comes back and essentially outlines a strategy, an approach, in which the Australians might have a role in the development of biological weapons.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Now, I've come to the archives of the University of Melbourne which has an extraordinary collection of the papers and diaries of Sir Macfarlane Burnet. And I've read a heap of stuff here. And it's very clear to me he went on an extraordinary journey, a mental journey, about his attitude to the human race between 1945 and 1960. I found a talk from 1960 which is incredibly poignant. It's a talk he gave to the Rotary Club in Melbourne that year. And he says this. "I shall probably be called incredibly naive, but I prefer to believe that all men belong to one species. And that every race responds to human situations in basically similar fashion. At least, that faith provides the only hope for a future for civilisation." The man who wrote that in 1960 was incapable even of thinking that forward back in 1945. What does his biographer, Christopher Sexton, think?
CHRISTOPHER SEXTON: Bear in mind, up until the mid-'50s, the late '50s, he really did not venture very far beyond simply doing the standard, um, travel visits. Mainly to England and to America. Once, however, he did start to step outside the laboratory, then his eyes opened. And I think that did cause a shift.
MICHAEL CATHCART: And that's the story I'm finding in Burnet's private papers. When he began to travel, he saw that sheer humanity demanded the sick of India should be cured. In Czechoslovakia and Russia, he encountered people of flesh and blood. The old white supremacist was relenting. He was being moved to a sense of common brotherhood.
SIR GUSTAV NOSSAL: It's a beautiful portrait, don't you think? When you look at that portrait, who do you see? Who's the man we're seeing in that portrait?
SIR GUSTAV NOSSAL: Well, I can see the sternness.
MICHAEL CATHCART: The brilliant biologist Gustav Nossal knew Burnet well and followed him as the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. I caught up with him at his old workplace. So what does Sir Gus Nossal make of Burnet's involvement in the biological weapons program?
SIR GUSTAV NOSSAL: I literally had no idea of it. It was something that he didn't talk about. It wasn't front of mind in 1957 when I turned up, not at all.
MICHAEL CATHCART: So how does he account for Burnet's anti-Asian ideas?
SIR GUSTAV NOSSAL: Don't forget Mac Burnet, Scottish stock, country origins, Geelong College. Ormond College. It's a very WASPish view. I mean, yes, that's how the majority of people thought back then. So, no, I'm not going to excuse him. But I don't want you to be too tough on him.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Well, the Nobel Prize winner that I encountered when I was a student, was a man who'd been on an epic journey. He'd learnt that, regardless of race, we're all members of the one species. And he was a great scientist. You and I might even owe our lives to him. And whether he was a great ethical thinker, that's a more challenging proposition.http://www.abc.net.au/tv/rewind/txt/s1184924.htm