At 88, Sir Gustav Nossal’s expertise is still in demand

Sir Gustav Nossal relaxing

When an email hits 88-year-old Sir Gustav Nossal’s inbox it may well be the World Health Organisation or Bill and Melinda Gates seeking his advice.

The award-winning medical researcher, who has a high school and university research institute named after him and was the Australian of the Year in 2000, officially retired at 65. However, he still fields calls from those needing his expertise in vaccines and immunology.

Keeping the mind active

‘I think it's important for people to stay active as long as possible and when their full-time career finishes, try and find some part time involvement to keep the mind active,’ Sir Gustav says.

Sir Gustav’s career saw him make major inroads in the fields of antibody formation and immunological tolerance.

A lifelong passion

It’s clear that Sir Gustav’s passion for science is lifelong.

‘I grew to love immunology and, in particular, fascinating subjects such as autoimmune diseases and the possibility of an immune defence against cancer,’ Sir Gustav says.

‘I studied how the cells of the body make the precious antibody molecules that keep you free of disease. It’s an extraordinary fact that you can make antibodies to virtually anything, and I made some good discoveries about that. One of the main ones was that one cell of your body, one single cell, always only makes one antibody.’

‘These monoclonal antibodies have had a very, very large role since then, both in research and more particularly in treatment. For example, one of the best treatments for breast cancer is Herceptin, which is a monoclonal antibody against breast cancer cells. So, it was theoretically important and, fortuitously, it also turned out to be practically very important.’

The long-lasting impact of Sir Gustav’s work is impressive and it shows just how much a person can contribute to a single field over a lifetime – then and now.

Contributing to the puzzle of research

‘I always think of it like an ever-growing giant jigsaw puzzle. If you're lucky enough to put one piece into the jigsaw puzzle, that's really something. But the jigsaw puzzle only takes on meaning when all the other pieces, made by other researchers, are there as well. So, any one person's contribution has to be seen in the light of the contribution of many, many others.

Sir Gustav was also involved in teaching and mentoring a new generation of researchers as Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

‘That’s been really satisfying … the number of times that someone has come up to me in a supermarket when I'm shopping and said, "Look, you might not remember me, but I studied under you 50 years ago and those years at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute were the best years of my life”,’ he says.

‘It happens surprisingly frequently.’

Official retirement no barrier to work

An academic never quite retires, and after his official retirement at the age of 65, Sir Gustav has continued to work part-time for many years. This includes working for the World Health Organisation in the field of infectious diseases and vaccines.

‘The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation became a very major interest after my retirement,’ he says

‘I have the highest respect for both Bill and Melinda Gates. They really care. Soon after I retired, they made polio eradication their number one priority and, second to that, the development of more vaccine coverage for the developing countries, and they really believed in it and put their money where their mouth was.’

Bill and Melinda Gates vaccine program

For several post-retirement years, Sir Gustav chaired the Strategic Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Children’s Vaccine Program and he is still called upon from time to time to assist with grant applications and other work.

‘I'm lucky that people understand if you've been around for a long time you've seen a lot of things and tackled a lot of problems and maybe have a bit of a contribution to make in how those problems could be solved.

‘It's both healthy and sensible to use the skills you've built up over a lifetime for as long as you possibly can.’