The bacteriophage, its role in immunology: How Macfarlane Burnet's phage research shaped his scientific style

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Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Tufts University

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Biology Department

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Research Article

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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C :Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

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The Australian scientist Frank Macfarlane Burnet-winner of the Nobel Prize in 1960 for his contributions to the understanding of immunological tolerance-is perhaps best recognized as one of the formulators of the clonal selection theory of antibody production, widely regarded as the 'central dogma' of modern immunology. His work in studies in animal virology, particularly the influenza virus, and rickettsial diseases is also well known. Somewhat less known and publicized is Burnet's research on bacteriophages, which he conducted in the first decade of his research career, immediately after completing medical school. For his part, Burnet made valuable contributions to the understanding of the nature of bacteriophages, a matter of considerable debate at the time he began his work. Reciprocally, it was while working on the phages that Burnet developed the scientific styles, the habits of mind and laboratory techniques and practices that characterized him for the rest of his career. Using evidence from Burnet's published work, as well as personal papers from the period he worked on the phages, this paper demonstrates the direct impact that his experiments with phages had on the development of his characteristic scientific style and approaches, which manifested themselves in his later career and theories, and especially in his thinking regarding various immunological problems. © 2010.

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