Donald Metcalf

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 30 March 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1532
  1. Ned Stafford, Hamburg

Molecular haematologist whose work helped advance cancer treatment

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

When, as a young doctor, Donald Metcalf joined the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne in 1954, his new boss, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, was not pleased with Metcalf’s desire to focus on cancer research. Burnet, who six years later would win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, believed that cancer could not be prevented or cured. Anyone wanting to do cancer research was “either a fool or a rogue,” he thought.

Metcalf eventually ignored Burnet’s advice and started to pursue cancer research. He was banished to a secluded laboratory above the institute’s “smelly animal house.” It was there, in 1965, that he and Ray Bradbury of the University of Melbourne discovered that it was possible to grow bone marrow cells in plates of partly set agar jelly.

“Don’s genius lay not in this breakthrough,” according to Douglas Hilton, current director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, “but in the realisation that it could be used to understand the cellular basis of blood cell production and to discover the hormones—which he named colony stimulating factors—that regulate blood cell production in the body.”

Indeed, Metcalf’s initial observance of colony stimulating factors—described in a landmark 1966 paper and now commonly called CSFs1—was only a first step toward …

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