2000 – Professor Jacques Miller

Two childhood events led Emeritus Professor (University of Melbourne) Jacques Miller to dedicate his life to investigating how we fight disease. Growing up in Switzerland and China in the midst of the Second World War, Professor Miller found himself steering towards medicine – he wanted to patch people up rather than wound or kill them.

Tragically during his childhood he lost one of his two sisters to tuberculosis in 1940 – only two years before a treatment was discovered. This was the major catalyst for his interest in how the body resists infection.

“I remember hearing conversations between my mother and the doctor stating that we didn’t know anything about resistance to infection and that intrigued me,” Professor Miller said. When he was 10 years old, Professor Miller’s family moved from Shanghai to Australia in 1941 to escape the war. After studying medicine at the University of Sydney, he went on to make two extraordinarily important immunological discoveries.

1961: he discovered how the thymus – an organ that other scientists had assumed obsolete – was crucial to the immune system, becoming one of the few scientists in history to ever determine the function of an entire organ.

1967: showed that mammals had two distinct types of white blood cells – those created in the thymus (T cells) and those derived from the bone marrow (B cells). Together, these cell populations protect us from the vast array of attackers we meet over our lifetimes, from viruses and bacteria to cancer cells.

Professor Miller’s discoveries underpin modern medicine’s understanding of how the immune system operates (the Nobel Prize winning research of Professor Peter Doherty would not have been possible without Professor Miller’s discoveries). His work forms the basis for developing new strategies for producing better vaccines, preventing organ graft rejection and enhancing cancer cell death. He has also shed light on ways in which the immune system can get things wrong and lead to allergic diseases such as asthma and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and insulin dependent diabetes.

Professor Suzanne Cory, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research said, “Jacques Miller had the rare privilege of discovering the function of a major organ in the human body – indeed, he is probably the last scientist to be able to claim this distinction. His work has spearheaded a revolution in our understanding of how immunity is generated”.

It was through Professor Miller’s early work in leukaemia research that he ‘stumbled’ upon the discovery of the function of the thymus.

“There are many examples of ‘accidental’ findings which turn out to be very important,” Professor Miller said. “That’s why I think basic research is so important – it often produces significant clinical applications.”

While ‘retired’, Professor Miller still works at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, which he joined in 1966. He travels the nation and the world talking about his lifelong dedication to fighting disease. Professor Miller also speaks Italian and is an accomplished artist.