Saul Wiener AM (MBBS 1947)


On 15 September 2010, the Melbourne Medical School lost one of its most remarkable graduates. Ten years ago I wrote of the passing of the doyen of Australian toxinology, Struan Sutherland. Amazingly, the man on whose shoulders Struan metaphorically stood, Saul Wiener, died almost ten years later, aged 87. This gentle, relentlessly curious physician- scientist was the quintessential ‘quiet achiever’ who, regrettably, was known to very few of the many thousands of Australians whose lives he enriched.

Like many other high achieving Jewish refugees, Saul was born in Germany to parents of Polish origin. After experiencing Kristallnacht in Frankfurt, his family migrated to Melbourne in late 1938.

Despite his initially poor English, Saul graduated from University High School in 1942 – he recalled completing his chemistry matriculation exam on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed – and completed medicine in 1947, winning the forensic medicine prize. After working as an RMO in Hobart, Saul eventually enrolled as a PhD student and studied the etiology of rheumatic fever in the Department of Microbiology under Rubbo. His degree, conferred in 1953, made him equal second as an Australian medical graduate to achieve an Australian PhD.

Thereafter followed Saul’s period of most enduring achievements, whilst employed as a research officer in the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (1952-58). Most famously, ‘in his spare time’, after administrative tasks such as the Salk Poliomyelitis vaccine trial participation, he developed the Redback spider antivenom and the world’s first marine antivenom, against Stonefish. Many years later, during an interview marking his receipt of the AM, Saul remarked that he did this work to repay the Australian Government for giving his family refuge from Germany. If it were not for this kindness, Saul and his family would have been among the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. He also researched the funnel web spider and pioneered the study of Chironex fleckeri box jellyfish venom. Moreover, Saul’s demonstration of the toxicity of freshly extracted cone snail venom eventually led to the current global boom in conotoxin- related drug discovery.

In the late 1950s he also explored the concept of active human immunisation with snake venom as a type of snakebite vaccine. His 1960 MD thesis was probably the first higher degree in toxinology in Australia and included perhaps the first Australian toxinology publication in the prestigious journal Nature.

After leaving CSL in 1958, Saul’s interest in allergy and immunology led to a year as a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York where he developed new skills in chromosome analysis. Returning to Melbourne he commenced as a staff specialist (allergist) at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and was elected FRACP in 1970. His research moved into cytogenetics, and produced a string of reports in the Lancet – including some of the earliest work on Familial X-linked mental retardation (‘Fragile X’ syndrome), ably assisted and then led by the now famous geneticist Grant Sutherland.

Saul was also a strong contributor to the Jewish community – he established ‘Kosher Meals on Wheels’ in Melbourne, was the Inaugural President, Council of Orthodox Synagogues, and actively involved in several synagogue committees. He became an AMA Life Member, a Member of the Order of Australia (for services to science, medical research and allerology. His wife, Fay, two daughters, Rebecca and Vivienne, his son, Rabbi Yonason Wiener, and a sister, Paula, survive him.

Ken Winkel, Director, Australian Venom Research Unit, Department of Pharmacology

Dr Saul Werner