Canberra Citizen of the Year


Christopher Richard Parish (born 1943)

Chris Parish

SOURCE: ACT Government

Chris was born and educated in Melbourne. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science in 1966 and in 1969 received his PhD in immunology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. This is Australia’s oldest medical research institute; it is affiliated with the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and also offers postgraduate training through the University of Melbourne.

Chris joined the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the Australian National University in 1969 and worked with Frank Fenner, Director of the School, and Gordon Ada, who had recently succeeded Fenner as head of the Department of Microbiology. In the early 1970s he made fundamental discoveries about cell-mediated immune responses, an almost unknown aspect of cell behaviour in relation to antibodies and immune responses.

Immunity as a concept has ancient roots. During the plague in Athens in 430 BCE Thucydides, an Athenian historian, political philosopher and general, noticed that those who had recovered from the illness were able to nurse the sick without contracting the disease a second time. Other ancient societies also noted the phenomenon, but it did not begin to evolve into a scientific theory until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Immunology is based on the study of the molecular and cellular components that comprise the immune system, including their function and interaction. In simpler life forms there is an innate immune system, but vertebrates have an acquired or adaptive immune system, that is, one capable of “learning” to recognise and deal with infections.

Traditionally, immunology centred on the relationship between antibodies and antigens and the cellular response to their interaction. More recently, the emphasis is on understanding more about the functions of cells, organs and systems not previously associated with the immune system, in expectation of preventing the infection or tumour from developing by using these functions against themselves. In cancer immunology this understanding is driving targeted therapies such as vaccines and antibody therapies, as well as diagnostic tests based on identification and isolation of tumour “markers”.

Chris, by then a senior fellow in JCSMR, hit the headlines in September 1987 when he announced publicly that he and his team were developing a new class of drug that might be used to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and, perhaps, AIDS. Although his findings had been published in nine highly regarded scientific journals worldwide, “going public” during relatively early stages of research was not well received in some academic quarters. Financially it was a good move and would have brought immediate funding support except for the stock market crash that more or less wiped out biotechnology companies for the next five years. However, in 1993 the team won a $4.5 million grant that enabled research to continue on radical new treatments designed to halt growth of cancer cells and perhaps even kill them.

In a research career spanning more than 40 years, Chris has developed several important immunological techniques, and the patented intellectual property he has developed underpins at least six Australian biotechnology companies that enable commercial development of the techniques and drug therapies, beginning in 1989 with Progen. Three are based in Canberra, including Lipotek (founded 2001) and Beta Therapeutics (founded 2012). Chris has published over 300 scientific papers and holds at least 28 international patents.

More than ever, medical research is a team effort; Chris leads a group that varies from about 10 to 16 people, depending on the project and available funding. He likes to follow whatever leads come up, particularly if they cross boundaries between research fields and lead to practical clinical applications. His collaboration with Joe Altin in the Research School of Biology produced a melanoma vaccine, developed by Lipotek. Collaboration with Charmaine Simeonovic’s diabetes research team at JCSMR and developmental support from Beta Therapeutics is likely to produce a therapy that could not only treat but possibly prevent diabetes.

Concurrently with leading his research groups Chris has held several professorial and administrative positions at JCSMR, most recently as head of the Cancer and Vascular Biology Group in the Division of Immunology and Genetics. In 2012 he was Deputy Director (Operations) and acting Director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research during the third and final stage of construction of its new building. The old building, said Chris, “was great for science in the 1940s and ‘50s but it's totally inadequate for carrying out 21st century science."

From then to October 2014 he was Director of JCSMR. With a new building capable of attracting big money to fund more research, the ANU carried out a major review of its health and medical research options. At the same time, Chris had several significant achievements, including the establishment of both the Centenary Chair for Cancer Research and the Judith Whitworth Research Fellowship for women, and the introduction of a formal grant review process, of which some elements have been adopted more broadly across the College of Medicine, Biology and Environment.

From 1992 to 2010 Chris was Editor-in-Chief of the Australian immunology journal ICB. It started in 1924 at the University of Adelaide as the Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science and soon became a well-respected international journal. After 1960 it included more immunology, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s when immunology had become a strong research discipline in Australia, but following a change of name to Immunology and Cell Biology (ICB) in 1987 it slipped from view. By various innovative means Chris was able to bring the journal back to world standing, with particularly high status in the Asia Pacific region. His wife, Bhama, is editorial assistant at the journal’s ANU office, and for some years they jointly funded the ICB Publication of the Year Award.

As a group leader Chris sees his main role as inspiring, challenging and training the next generation of research scientists. Hundreds of students have now benefited from his knowledge and his mentoring, and in the process Chris has contributed enormously to both the research community and the health system.

"There are two things that drive me," he said. "The first is trying to understand how things work. I get a real buzz out of being the first to discover something. The second is to apply that to improving human health. It is a wonderful area to be working in."

Awards and Distinctions

2005 Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Medal for Excellence in Biomedical Research

2011 National Health and Medical Research Council’s inaugural Marshall and Warren Award (co-winner with Ben Quah) for discovering that immune cells responding to a foreign substance (orpathogen) are able to rapidly transfer their ability to fight new infection to other immune cells

2011 Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Industry

2012 Australasian Society for Immunology Honorary Life Membership

2014 Canberra Citizen of the Year for personal efforts and significant contribution to the ACT community, through his work at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU

2014 Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Australian National University

Select Bibliography

1988 ‘When eureka! is a dirty word’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January, viewed 3 March 2016,

1993 ‘ANU researchers win $4.5M cancer grant’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November, viewed 3 March 2016,

2011 ‘Award for 'heretical' cell study at ANU’,  The Canberra Times, 4 March, viewed 3 March 2016,

2014 ‘ANU professor named ACT Citizen of the Year’, 12 March, viewed 3 March 2016,

2016 The Parish Group – Cancer & Vascular Biology, The John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU College of Medicine, Biology & Environment, viewed 5 March 2016,

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.