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Corporate entry Virus Department (1934 - 1960)

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Medical Research


The Virus Department, sometimes called the Department of Virology, was established under Dr F. M. Burnet in 1934. The Department was funded initially by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and from the Health Department of the Commonwealth Government. Between 1944 and 1951/52, the Department was placed under the authority of the University Department of Experimental Medicine and was re-established as the Experimental Department in 1960/61.


Initial research interests of the Virus Department included a two-year investigation into Australian parrot psittacosis at the request of the Commonwealth Director General of Health. This was due to a concern that the disease was being transferred to humans from parrots caught in the wild and sold on. The study of psittacosis was revisited occasionally after this initial investigation, when interesting human cases arose.

The Department also worked on determining whether human Australian X disease was caused by louping ill virus which was thought to be widely prevalent amongst sheep in western NSW in 1917-1918. By 1936 the Virus Department had shown it to be an unlikely causative agent. The pathogenicity of myxomatosis of rabbits was of particular interest from the mid-1930s, as were the increasing number of Q fever cases in Queensland from 1933 onwards. There was a severe epidemic of poliomyelitis in Victoria from June 1937 to February 1938, which sparked a great deal of public concern and prompted new investigations at the Institute.

During this period, the Department was also examining virus growth on the chorio-alantoic membrane of developing eggs started at the Department and was extended in 1936 to include the viruses for Rous sarcoma and myxomatosis of rabbits, as well as influenza, vaccinia and louping ill. In 1936, this egg membrane technique was extended to the studies of antibody and complement action in influenza infection. In June and July 1935 there was a widespread prevalence of influenza in Melbourne, and the Department undertook an investigation that showed the Australian infections were due to the same influenza virus strain isolated in England and America.

In 1939 there was again an epidemic of influenza, but this time throughout Victoria. Of the four strains isolated by the Department two proved practically identical to the "Melbourne" strain isolated in 1935. Work was also carried out on patient antibody responses to the influenza infection. In 1940 the Virus Department studied influenza-like infections in military camps that were not due to influenza virus. After this time the work of the Department centred on the problem of immunization against influenza viruses. They carried out extensive experiments on human volunteers using attenuated virus strains were performed and in 1943 large-scale intranasal immunisation of troops was conducted on a semi-experimental basis. However, no conclusions about the efficacy of the method could be reached as there was no influenza epidemic in 1943.

In 1952 there was little influenza work carried out on a clinical or epidemiological level at the Institute. Instead, attention was directed towards the reaction between viruses and mucoproteins, complement fixation, and the creation of recombinant strains in chick embryos. Murray Valley encephalitis disappeared from Victoria in late 1951, but some work continued into 1953. Research in the Department also examined the chemistry of receptor substances, influenza virus in the mammary gland and mucoproteins. Work on the nucleic acids of influenza virus found that there was no significant DNA in purified influenza virus, which fed into increased studies of the genetics of influenza virus and the nature of the nucleic acids present in its genome. In 1955 work was focused on the chemical aspects on virus particles, including their nucleic acids and carbohydrate content.
In 1957 there was world wide interest in Asian influenza, which had appeared in Melbourne towards the end of the year, but little epidemiological work was carried out on this strain in the Department as the focus of Institute research was by this time changing to immunological studies.

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Emily Geraghty