As a child growing up in the 1940s on the outskirts of Brisbane, Peter Doherty played tennis and paddled a homemade canoe, but he most often had his head in a book—although not typically a science book.

His first contact with the biological sciences came at an open day for the local university Veterinary School, as boys weren’t allowed to study biology in Queensland’s public schools of the era. Peter resolved to become a vet, but soon discovered his true passion was for research. He went on to specialise in immunology, the study of the immune system.

After completing an overseas PhD looking at virus infection in sheep brains, Peter returned to Australia and set out to study a type of immune cell known as T-cells. And that’s when he made the discovery that would forever change our understanding of the immune system.

In 1996 Professor Peter Doherty was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work with colleague Rolf Zinkernagel describing how the body’s immune system recognises viruses.

He explains that they never set out to make a discovery, but simply followed their curiosity to see where it might lead them.

Professor Peter Doherty remains the first person with a veterinary qualification to win a Nobel Prize.

Today, he’s the namesake and patron of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a centre of excellence where leading scientists collaborate to improve human health. A joint venture of the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the more than 700 staff of the Doherty Institute work to prevent, treat and ultimately eliminate infectious diseases globally.

Professor Peter Doherty is also the author of several books about science written for a general audience. He remains passionate about engaging non-scientists in the value of following their own curiosity in the search for evidence-based information.

He was Australian of the Year in 1997, is listed as a living National Treasure, has had his face on a postage stamp, and has research fellowships, a street and two buildings (in Edinburgh and Melbourne) named after him.

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Illustrated by Antra Svarcs