Macnamara, Jean (1899–1968)

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Macnamara, Jean (1899–1968)

Australian doctor and scientist who championed the use of an immune serum to treat pre-paralytic patients with polio and helped pave the way toward the development of the Salk vaccine with her discovery that more than one strain of the polio virus existed . Name variations: Annie Jean Connor; Jean Connor. Born in Beechworth, Victoria, Australia, on April 1, 1899; died on October 13, 1968; daughter of John Macnamara (a court clerk) and Anne Fraser Macnamara; educated at Melbourne's Presbyterian Ladies' College; University of Melbourne, M.B.B.S., 1922, M.D., 1925; married Joseph Ivan Connor (a dermatologist), on November 19, 1934 (died 1955); children: two daughters.

The second daughter of John and Anne Fraser Macnamara , Jean Macnamara was born on April 1, 1899, in Beechworth, Victoria, Australia. In 1907, the Macnamara family moved to Melbourne, the capital of Victoria. There Jean attended the Presbyterian Ladies' College and later the University of Melbourne, from which she graduated with a medical degree in 1922. She began her medical practice as a resident medical officer at the Royal Melbourne and Royal Children's hospitals, graduating as a medical doctor in 1925. The following year, Macnamara was named clinical assistant to the outpatients' physician at Royal Children's Hospital and at the same time established a private practice specializing in the treatment of polio (poliomyelitis), a literally crippling disease that was running rampant not only in Australia but throughout the world. Also, beginning in 1925 and continuing until 1931, she served as a consultant and medical officer to the Poliomyelitis Committee of Victoria, an organization led by Dr. John Dale. Between 1930 and 1931, Macnamara also served as an honorary adviser on polio to three other states. For more than two decades, between 1928 and 1951, she held the post of honorary medical officer to the Yooralla Hospital School for Crippled Children.

In 1925, a polio epidemic swept through Australia, prompting Macnamara to conduct tests of immune serum in the treatment of preparalytic patients. (An infectious virus that struck particularly hard at children, polio often resulted in some form of paralysis or laming.) Confident that her treatment plan had merit, she published accounts of her experimental therapy in Australian and British medical journals between 1927 and 1935. An attempt to duplicate her treatment methods in New York produced discouraging results, which Macnamara blamed on flawed procedures. Discredited by the disappointing test results from the United States, the immune serum therapy program was largely abandoned by other medical practitioners, although Macnamara herself continued to use it privately. Working with fellow medical researcher Macfarlane Burnet, she discovered the existence of more than one strain of polio virus. This finding, which was reported in a 1931 issue of the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, was later credited with helping to lay the foundation for the development of the polio vaccine by American Jonas Salk in 1954 that virtually eliminated the disease from industrialized countries.

Macnamara traveled from Australia to the United Kingdom and the United States between 1931 and 1933 on a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation. During her overseas travels, she placed an order for Australia's first artificial respirator (polio sometimes attacked the muscles of the chest and throat, leaving the patient unable to breathe without the assistance of an "iron lung") and collected ideas for new splinting and rehabilitation techniques. The controversy over her immune serum therapy for the treatment of polio had caused a rift between Macnamara and her co-worker John Dale, so she determined to concentrate her future efforts on orthopedics. However, she did not totally abandon her interest in serum research, and worked part-time at Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute on the polio immune serum and on psittacosis, another infectious virus.

On November 19, 1934, Macnamara married dermatologist Joseph Ivan Connor, with whom she would have two daughters. A year later Macnamara was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). Shortly thereafter, she moved her Melbourne practice to larger quarters. A tireless worker, she often treated indigent patients free of charge and worked through the weekend when the need arose. When a new polio epidemic swept Australia in 1937 and 1938, she supervised patient care at both the Royal Children's and Fairfield Hospitals in Melbourne. So popular had she become among her patients, most of whom were children, that her clinics were almost always filled, despite the fact that patients faced lengthy waits to see her.

One of the methods Macnamara employed to try to get polio patients back on their feet was to splint the paralyzed limb until the damaged nerves had time to recover. After the nerves had recovered, she helped patients reeducate the muscles in the afflicted limb so that function could be restored. She spent much of her time trying to devise new splinting methods to help immobilize limbs that had been rendered useless by paralysis. To reach out to patients who had been paralyzed by polio, Macnamara set up a system of visiting physiotherapists, who went to patients in their homes to try to help them on the road to recovery. She established a clinic in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton that treated 30 children a day. To meet the needs of patients in outlying areas, she conducted country clinics. Macnamara also served on the Queensland Royal Commission on polio, which explored the innovative polio treatments pioneered by Sister Elizabeth Kenny , a native of New South Wales in Australia. The Queensland commission supported the establishment at Brighton of an experimental treatment center utilizing the Kenny method. As an out-growth of her work with polio patients, Macnamara eventually expanded her practice to include victims of cerebral palsy and lead poisoning, as well as healthy patients with poor posture. On her recommendation, the first Australian center for the treatment of spastic children opened at Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne.

When she had learned in 1933 that researchers at Princeton University were experimenting with ways to combat the myxomatosis virus in rabbits, it occurred to Macnamara that perhaps the virus could be used as a weapon to combat Australia's enormous rabbit population, which posed a significant threat to agriculture. First it was necessary to make certain that the virus would pose no danger to domestic animals. She dispatched a sample of the virus to Melbourne for testing, but it was destroyed in transit. Macnamara called upon S.M. Bruce in London to help determine if the virus could be used safely without threatening other domestic animals, and such testing was carried out successfully in Cambridge. Between 1937 and 1944, Australia's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research conducted a series of field trials of the virus on rabbits, but the virus failed to spread. From Macnamara's point of view, it was clearly another case of a promising innovation being pushed aside after inadequate or flawed testing. She went public with her campaign to have testing of the virus revived, waging a war of words with other scientists in the Australian press and lobbying wool growers' organizations for a resumption of testing. In 1950, her efforts paid off, and testing of the virus was resumed in a location Macnamara felt was more favorable, although at first it produced no favorable results. A year or two later, the experiment triggered a widespread outbreak of disease among rabbits. During the 1952–53 wool season, the drop in the rabbit population caused by the virus was said to have increased wool revenues by millions of dollars. Growers showed their appreciation for Macnamara's efforts with a clock and a check.

Macnamara and her husband owned a farm, used mainly for weekend getaways, in the Romsey district, which she continued to visit after the death of her husband in 1955. Although she was not a full-time farmer, Macnamara campaigned against the indiscriminate use of pesticides in agriculture and even joined the Compost Society. In 1966, she was awarded an honorary LLD degree by the University of Melbourne. Right up until the time of her death on October 13, 1968, Jean Macnamara continued treating paralytic patients.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

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Macnamara, Jean (1899–1968)

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