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Science is Golden podcast episode 1: Dora Lush, the Australian scientist and war hero.

Author: Nicky Phillips
Publisher: Sydney Morning Herald, Technology, August 17 2015

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Dora & friends

L-R. John (the younger of Dora's brothers), Dora and friends. On the way to school? c1917. Image: Lush family

Dora Lush was schooled first at Grace Park (no longer in existence) and then Fintona. Fintona was in Burke Road, just around the corner from her home. She was captain of Boyne house for three successive years, a prefect, and dux of the school.

According to her brother George

...she had a particular talent for keeping the sort of records that science students in those days were supposed to keep - the practical record of experiments.  She had a bit of a gift for this.  In 1927 she won the Exhibition in the Leaving Honours examination in Geography - a strong point in her winning performance was the excellence with which she compiled and kept the recorded stuff.  From the time she was a child she was always capable of sustained application.  She once won five pounds by winning a word-making competition for the purpose of which she went clean through a small English Dictionary.  She won the prize with a margin of several hundred words over the next competitor.*

She won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne and from there went to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute where she worked under Macfarlane Burnet. Dora spent the start of World War II working at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. She also did duty as a fire warden during bombing raids.

On her return to Australia in 1942 she began searching for a vaccine for scrub typhus. Following a needle-stick accident, she contracted the disease herself. Scrub typhus was taking a deadly toll on Australian troops in the tropics. 'Dora knew as clearly as anyone else in the world that the treatment she was receiving was utterly useless',** but she insisted that blood samples were taken frequently in the hope that their analysis would add to understanding of the disease. It was this action that attracted the public's imagination and contributed most to her lasting fame. She died on 20 May 1943, a few weeks after the accident.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) offers a scholarship in her name, as did Fintona in the mid 1990s.***

* George Lush interviewed by Carolyn Rasmussen 1995
** George Lush, letter in box 62, Fintona archive
***' Honouring a Fintona past student', advertising feature, The Age, 9 February 1993 (?)

Go to SMH podcast about Dora

Go to Australian Dictionary of Biography entry about Dora

Additional material

Among the letters of condolence sent to Dora's family is one from a long serving member of staff at Fintona, Miss Jeannie Ower. Hand written the day after Dora died, the text is reproduced below with permission of the Lush family.

21st May 1943

Dear Mrs Lush,

I should like to convey to you & Mr Lush my very sincere sympathy in the grievous loss you have sustained in the death of your daughter Dora.

Only a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of a talk with her at the Old Fintonians’ Reunion; & even in that short conversation I was greatly interested & impressed by what she had to tell me of her work in London & the very important research which she was doing here. I looked forward to another talk with her, when we should have more time at our disposal – but it could have been only about a week later that the tragic accident occurred which ended a career in which she had already achieved so much; & gave brilliant promise of the further work she might do for humanity.

At school Dora’s was always an outstanding personality. Vivid strong of character & highly intelligent, she has remained very clearly in my memory through the years; & I was in no way surprised to hear of the selfless courage which led her, as she lay desperately ill, to think how that illness might be turned to use in the work to which she had devoted herself. The thought of that must be a source of pride & comfort to you both; & will do something to soften the blow you have suffered.

The school is very proud of her too, I can assure you; for, of all the fine records Fintona has had, hers is one of the finest.

My regards & deepest sympathy to you both.

Very sincerely yours,

Jeannie Ower