Meet the Pioneering Scientist Dame Jean Macnamara

The Australian doctor and scientist who dedicated her life to the research and treatment of poliomyelitis

Dame Jean Macnamara (circa. 1930) by DonovanNational Portrait Gallery

Dame Jean Macnamara DBE (1899-1968)

Determined to be of great use to society, Jean Macnamara, medical doctor and scientist, was involved in crucial research into poliomyelitis during the 1920s and 1930s. 

Born in Beechworth, Victoria, she studied Medicine at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1922. In the following year, she was appointed resident medical officer at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, despite some initial reluctance from hospital authorities on the grounds there were no toilet facilities for women doctors.

By Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

It was at this time she began to specialise in the research and treatment of polio, a crippling disease which was still much feared among society.

Awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Travelling Scholarship, between 1931 and 1933 she studied in the USA, Canada and England. On return to Melbourne, she continued her work at the Royal Children's Hospital and at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

By Albert FennLIFE Photo Collection

It was her collaborative work with Frank Macfarlane Burnet that led to the identification of multiple strains of the polio virus, which proved pivotal in the development of the Salk vaccine. She was made honorary medical officer to the physiotherapy department of the Royal Children's Hospital from 1928 to 1951 and for her work with children, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1935.

Syringe used in myxomatosis experiments on rabbits at Lake Urana (1954)National Museum of Australia

After learning about the virus abroad, from the early 1930s Macnamara campaigned for the introduction to Australia of the myxoma virus. In the face of commercial opposition, she maintained that if the country was to be left with any topsoil, the rabbit must be eradicated. Myxomatosis struck in the late 1950s and a year later, rabbit numbers were so reduced that the national wool cheque was said to have increased by £30 million.

Dame Jean Macnamara (circa. 1930) by DonovanNational Portrait Gallery

In 1966, Macnamara became the first woman awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by Melbourne University. Today, Macnamara is remembered for her pioneering work as a doctor and scientist who dedicated her life to her research.

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Produced by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia. For more stories of incredible Australians visit

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