High on Science

A Very Decided Preference: Life with Peter Medawar

by Jean Medawar
Norton, 256 pp., $19.95

The Threat and the Glory: Reflections on Science and Scientists

by P.B. Medawar, edited and introduced by David Pyke, foreword by Lewis Thomas
HarperCollins/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 320 pp., $22.50

Peter Brian Medawar: 28 February 1915–2 October 1987

by N.A Mitchison F.R.S.
Reprinted from Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society, Volume 35 pp.

Peter Medawar was a great biologist whose research helped to make possible the transplantation of human organs. He also thought profoundly about the methods, the meaning, and the values of scientific research, and he published his thoughts in books and essays that are models of clarity, style, and wit. Born in 1915 in Brazil of a Lebanese father and an English mother, he received his education in England and made his career there. He became a full professor at thirty-two, a Fellow of the Royal Society at thirty-four, a Nobel Laureate at forty-five, and head of Britain’s largest medical research laboratory at forty-seven. At fifty-four, when his intellectual powers and capacity for work seemed inexhaustible, a cerebral hemorrhage destroyed the right half of his brain, but it did not impair his determination, his vitality and optimism. Three years later he was back at his research and literary work, and he lectured around the globe. In 1980 a cerebral thrombosis set him back severely. Again he recovered and wrote more papers and essays as well as a hilarious autobiography which makes even his tragedy an occasion for laughter. In 1985, another series of strokes robbed him of his ability to speak clearly and of most of his eyesight, and in 1987 they finally killed him.

He never wanted to die, severely crippled though he was. In the last of his essays, now collected and published under the title The Threat and the Glory, he pours scorn on the crumbling baroque edifice of Freudian psychoanalytic theory that postulates a death instinct, “the most deeply unbiological explanatory concept in Freud.”

The tenacity of our hold on life and the sheer strength of our preference for being alive whenever it is an option is far better evidence of a life instinct than any element of the human behavioral repertoire is evidence of a death instinct. It is odd, then, that nothing in modern medicine has aroused more criticism and resentment than the lengths to which the medical profession will go to prolong the life of patients who need not die if any artifice can keep them going…. Charity, common sense, and humanity unite to describe intensive care as a method of preserving life and not, as its critics have declared, of prolonging death.

Medawar was tall, with “the pride of bearing that comes from good looks known to be possessed” and powerfully built, good at tennis and cricket. He was outgoing, vivacious, sociable, debonair, brilliant in conversation, approachable, restless, and intensely ambitious. From his student days he was determined that none of human knowledge should be beyond his grasp; for example, he declared Bertrand Russell’s formidable monograph on mathematical logic, the Principia Mathematica, to have been the book that influenced him most when he was a student at Oxford.

Later he fell under the spell of the philosopher Karl Popper, whose book Conjectures and Refutations taught him the scientific method that he adopted and popularized in his writing. According to …

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Letters

Darwin and Marx’ December 6, 1990