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Lush, Dora Mary (1910–1943)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Dora Mary Lush (1910-1943), bacteriologist, was born on 31 July 1910 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, daughter of Victorian-born parents John Fullarton Lush, clerk, and his wife Dora Emma Louisa, née Puttmann. Mabel Mary Hailes Lush was her aunt. Educated at Fintona Girls' School, Dora pursued a conventional course of study for a girl until 1928 when she took physics and chemistry. She was dux, and won the exhibition in geography and a free place to the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1932; M.Sc., 1934). In 1933, at the university's department of bacteriology, she studied bacillary dysentery.

In the following year Miss Lush joined the staff of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute as a bacteriological research fellow. She worked closely with (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet in a small team examining viruses and the human immune system. Employing a method largely devised by Burnet for studying viruses, she undertook path-breaking research with Bill Keogh and others. Lush collaborated in the search for an influenza vaccine, the early development of myxomatosis and the identification of the herpes simplex virus. Burnet considered her the 'most outstandingly competent' bacteriologist with whom he had ever worked.

Early in 1939 Lush proceeded to the National Institute for Medical Research, London. There she hoped to follow through work on the poliomyelitis virus which she could not pursue in Melbourne. The outbreak of World War II interrupted her plans and she joined a team, led by Sir Patrick Laidlaw, investigating air-borne infections. For two years, through the darkest days of the air-raids on London, she applied her laboratory skills to the influenza virus 'with an excursion into the practical problems of dust control in hospital wards'. In 1942 she was diverted into work on immunization against typhus.

Lush returned to Australia in September that year. Scrub typhus was causing havoc among Australian servicemen in the tropics and Burnet was pleased to have her support in work on a vaccine. The rickettsia microbe could only be maintained by inoculation of blood through a series of animals. Although there was a known element of risk in such work, Lush had complete mastery of a wide range of laboratory techniques. In any case, it was wartime. Lush had previously recovered from a mild case of typhus when she worked in London. On 27 April 1943 she accidentally pricked the index finger of her left hand while inoculating a mouse with scrub typhus. The strain of virus proved a particularly malignant one. She died on 20 May that year in Royal Melbourne Hospital and was cremated. Her insistence that regular blood samples be taken to assist further research into the disease and its treatment caught the public imagination. She was hailed as a martyr to science and the war effort. Within three years it was discovered that the disease could be treated with antibiotics and that a vaccine was unnecessary.

A tall, slim woman with wavy auburn hair, Lush was athletic, energetic and direct. She was an exceptionally good dancer, 'a near champion at squash' and a passionate skier. Immaculately groomed, she wore three-inch (7.6 cm) heels, even in the laboratory. From an early age she had demonstrated a remarkable capacity for sustained application to detailed tasks. In the laboratory she was careful, methodical and keenly analytical, but her career was cut short before she could realize her full potential as an independent researcher. Her life and work have been honoured by the National Health and Medical Research Council's biomedical scholarships, and by her old school which offers Dora Lush scholarships for mathematics and science.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Burnet, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute 1915-1965 (Melb, 1971)
  • Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Annual Report, 1943, p 6
  • Australian Journal of Science, June 1943, p 193
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 May 1943
  • Argus (Melbourne) 21 May 1943
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 21 May 1943.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Lush, Dora Mary (1910–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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