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Fantl, Paul (1900–1972)

by H. A. Ward

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Paul Fantl (1900-1972), biochemist, was born on 29 August 1900 in Vienna, son of Leopold Fantl, travelling salesman, and his wife Cilli, née Weinstock. Paul studied chemistry and engineering at the Technische Hochschule in 1918-22, taking his doctorate (1923) with a thesis entitled 'Ueber einen Sesquiterpenalkohol aus dem Elemioel'. In November 1919 he had become a demonstrator at the University of Vienna and in 1921-28, as an assistant, worked and studied with the Nobel prize-winner, Hans Fischer. Fantl had also spent one semester in 1920 at the University of Graz (Styria) with another Nobel prize-winner, Fritz Pregl. On 1 August 1925 Fantl married Polish-born Irene Munz in Vienna. From 1928 to 1931 he was a scientific adviser in the perfume and essential oils industry.

In 1931 he was appointed chief biochemist at the Wilhelmina Hospital, Vienna. Being Jewish, he realized the dangers of Nazism. After the Anschluss in March 1938, Fantl left Vienna and lived for six months in Trinidad before arriving in Melbourne on 8 August 1939 to take up an appointment as organic chemist and biochemist in the Baker Medical Research Institute at the Alfred Hospital, Prahran. Having participated in the development of clinical biochemistry as a distinct profession, he contributed to routine biochemistry in the hospital. His experience in organic chemistry proved valuable in wartime projects on the feasibility of manufacturing certain drugs in Australia.

Fantl's initial research areas at the Baker Institute included carbohydrate metabolism, vitamin K and sterols, but he gradually focussed on the biochemistry of blood coagulation which remained his main research interest for the rest of his life. In the 1940s he developed an anticoagulant drug, 3,3'-ethylidene-bis-4-hydroxycoumarin (ethylidene dicoumarol, EDC), which clinicians found superior to an existing anticoagulant for treating myocardial infarction and preventing thrombosis.

Naturalized in June 1945, Fantl was appointed assistant-director of the Baker Institute that year. In 1949 he became associate-director, a post he was to occupy until 1966. He also served as consultant biochemist to the Alfred Hospital and part-time lecturer at the University of Melbourne, and was elected a fellow (1953) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. In 1958 he was invited to chair a session in the symposium on blood-clotting factors at the fourth International Congress of Biochemistry, held in Vienna. Although in a sense a personal triumph, it proved for him a somewhat disturbing visit because of memories of past events.

As one who delighted in Shakespeare's superb skill in the use of words, Fantl was meticulous in experimentation and in writing scientific papers. He approached problems logically and had a prodigious memory. Using simple equipment for the most part, he designed experiments with insight, made important contributions to many aspects of blood coagulation and applied his findings to clinical situations, among them the development of open-heart surgery at the Alfred Hospital. One major contribution was his discovery of the blood-clotting component now named Factor V in the terminology adopted by the International Committee for the Standardization of the Nomenclature of Blood Clotting Factors, of which he was a member. An example of his far-sightedness was his concept (1960) of using gene therapy for haemophilia, although, as a realist, he was aware of the difficulties in achieving this aim. During his career he published over one hundred papers, eighty of them on blood coagulation.

In scientific discussions Fantl was not afraid to oppose—usually with sound arguments—any orthodox views he considered wrong; although his comments and criticisms could be very frank, they were quite impersonal. He had a fine sense of humour and a compassionate nature. His concern for people was evident in his attitude to patients whose haemophilia and other blood-coagulation disorders he investigated with his colleague, Dr Ronald Sawers. Despite Fantl's lack of formal medical qualifications, his association with, and interest in, clinical matters often enabled him to give a sound opinion.

Democratic in temperament, Fantl greatly appreciated the freer attitudes of Australian society which he contrasted with those he had experienced in Europe. He said that the 'obsession with football' was one of the factors that encouraged him to settle in Melbourne: 'A people so obsessed would have no room in their hearts for anti-semitism and other nasties that scarred pre-war and war-time Europe'. His recreations spanned reading, music, theatre, gardening and golf. Following an absence on leave in 1966, he resumed his laboratory work. He died on 30 August 1972 at Prahran and was cremated; his wife and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Baker Medical Research Institute, Annual Report, 14 to 46, 1939-72, esp. 46, 1972, p 19
  • Baker Institute News, 3, no 1, 1990, p 9, 4, no 3, 1991, p 8, 6, no 2, 1993, p 36
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 30 Sept 1972, p 793
  • Baker Medical Research Institute Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. A. Ward, 'Fantl, Paul (1900–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fantl-paul-10152/text17929, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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