Miller, Jacques F A P

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BSc Med 1954 MB BS Hons 1956 PhD (Lon) MD Hon (US) DSc (Lon) BA (Melb)

Jacques Miller’s discovery of the function of the thymus gland gave him the rare privilege of being the last person to have discovered the function of a major organ of the body. His work spearheaded a revolution in our understanding of how immunity is generated.[1]

After graduating in 1956, Jacques became a Junior Resident at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and in the following year, began research work in the Pathology Department of the University of Sydney.

In 1958, he travelled to the United Kingdom on a Gaggin Research Fellowship from the University of Queensland, which offered a return fare to the United Kingdom and a salary for two years in a Research Institute of his choice. Jacques was accepted to the Chester Beatty Research Institute of Cancer Research in South Kensington, London and as a PhD student at the University of London.

His PhD investigated the pathogenesis of lymphocytic leukaemia induced in mice by what was presumed to be a virus that had recently been discovered by Ludwig Gross in the United States.

Jacques was strongly influenced by two giants in medical research (literally; they also were 6.5 feet tall): Peter Medawar and James Gowans. They were responsible for shedding light into why the body’s immune system does not attack itself (a phenomenon termed immunological tolerance), and they identified the cells (small circulating lymphocytes) which cause the rejection of foreign tissue grafts. Although working on leukaemia in mice and not immunology research, Jacques regularly attended their lectures, which primed him for his subsequent scientific breakthrough: the discovery that the thymus has a crucial immunological function. Although sceptical, Medawar and Gowans encouraged Jacques to continue further work in this area. Several months later, scientists in the United States proved Jacques correct. He received his PhD in the short time of two years, but remained in London, where research facilities were better than in Australia. He received his DSc in 1965.

He returned to Australia in 1966 at the invitation of the new Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Gus Nossal. There, with his first PhD student, Graham Mitchell, they made a breakthrough that changed the course of immunology: the discovery that lymphocytes are of two entirely different types; T and B cells, the latter producing the antibodies, the former not doing that, but acting directly to kill virus-infected cells or foreign cells, and helping B cells produce antibody. For this work Jacques was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society at 36 years of age, a young age for such an honour, and as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science two months later. He received numerous prizes and awards, including the Officer of the Order of Australia and a Australian Centenary Medal. In November 2001, he received the prestigious Copley Medal of the Royal Society in London, the Society’s highest award for outstanding achievement in research in any branch of science.

Many students completed their PhDs with Jacques at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. One, Jonathan Sprent, has recently been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He also shared a prize with Jacques in 1995. Among the other students or Post Doctoral Fellows who worked with Jacques are Tony Basten, now Professor of Immunology in the University of Sydney, and Mathew Vadas, now Professor of Immunology in Adelaide.

Jim Purchas adds to this biographical profile to state that Jacques also has a further ten international awards and/or prizes, two honorary degrees, five memberships or life memberships of international societies, and has produced over 410 publications (excluding abstracts) mostly on immunology. In September 2003, Jacques was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for his discoveries in the field of immunology and for his discovery of the role of the thymus gland in the immune system.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Miller, Jacques F A P. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.