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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. 1 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”2 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 Popper, scientists do not derive general laws from observations, but they formulate hypotheses which they then test experimentally. This method leads them gradually closer to the truth. Popper’s view that imagination comes first had a strong appeal for Medawar, since it implied that a scientist is not a robot who turns the handle of discovery, but a creative spirit on a par with artists and writers. Medawar called Popper’s “the hypothetico-deductive method.”

Popper gave explicit form to a method already used by the greatest scientists in the past. For example, in 1856 Michael Faraday wrote about the propagation of light waves through the supposed ether: “I have struggled to perceive how far…experimental trials might be devised, which…might contradict, confirm, enlarge, or modify the idea we form of it, always with the hope that the corrected or instructed idea would approach more and more to the truth of nature.”3

Medawar allowed nothing to deflect him from the pursuit of knowledge, except possibly laughter. He rarely relaxed, did not believe in holidays, and continued his research even while heading an institute of several hundred people. He maintained that a lot of his work was “as good as a rest,” and he prided himself on wasting no time, but neither Russell’s logic nor Popper’s hypothetico-deductive method saved him from wasting several of his best years on experiments that proved to be futile. He had formulated bold hypotheses about the spread of pigments in animals’ skin, which is a fundamental problem related to growth and differentiation. He then devised ingenious experiments to test his hypotheses, but he blinded himself to the possibility that he might be looking at the wrong kind of cells. As I have learned to my own cost, one can become so enamored of one’s ideas that doubts aroused by inconsistent results are stilled with far-fetched explanations rather than being allowed to overturn basic premises. Medawar preached that research is a passionate enterprise, but he did not warn scientists that that very passion can lead them into a trap.

What did it feel like to be married to such a man? Like Enrico Fermi’s widow Laura, who began her light-hearted biography of the great physicist while he was still alive,4 Jean Medawar’s biography, called A Very Decided Preference, draws an affectionate and bemused cartoon of Peter instead of chiseling him in marble. He told his young bride, pretentiously, that she had first claim on his love, but not on his time, made her buy her own wedding ring and often also her own Christmas presents. So preoccupied was he with his work that Jean had to be both father and mother to their four children. He had no patience with real people’s emotional problems, but was spellbound when he heard them transformed into music in Wagner’s operas. Wotan bidding Brünnhilde good-bye in Die Walküre stirred him more than his own daughter leaving home for months. When Jean reproached him for having hardly noticed that she had gone, he explained that “his emotions were stirred by art,” the sort of priggish remark that Mr. Casaubon in Middle-march might have made to Dorothea.

Medawar’s emotions were stirred by Wagner and Verdi (hardly by Mozart), but apparently not by great painters until he reached middle age and paid his first visit to the Frick Museum in New York. In his review of the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, he scoffs at the entries for Sisyphus, Tantalus, or Leda as superfluous, oblivious that much of the visual arts and literature was inspired by classical mythology.

Young Medawar proudly told a friend, “My mind, you know, never lets me rest,” but old Medawar wrote modestly that “It is a natural tendency of the mind to come to and remain at a complete standstill. This is a principle of Newtonian stature.” In a hospital, books “are crucially important for keeping the mind in working order. Some serious works should therefore be among them. Remember, however, that if you didn’t understand Chomsky when you were well, there is nothing about illness that can give you an insight into the working of his mind.” Medawar excelled in such sallies, and Jean tells us that he would laugh out loud as he wrote them.

Her biography begins with the tragic episode in Exeter Cathedral, when he fell “from a pinnacle of achievements into a state very near to death.” He had been invited to give the presidential address at the annual meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science, and he chose that honorific occasion for a passionate profession of his faith in science. He named his lecture after Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, an island kingdom where the Merchants of Light establish “the noblest foundation that ever was on earth” whose object is “the knowledge,…and the secret motions; and the enlargement of the bounds of human empire: THE EFFECTING OF ALL THINGS POSSIBLE.” The purpose of his address, Medawar said, was “to draw certain parallels between the spiritual and philosophic condition of thoughtful people in the seventeenth century and in the contemporary world.” The Thirty Years War on the continent of Europe and the Civil War in England brought “a period of questioning and irresolution and despondence,…a failure of nerve.” Besides, people believed that the Biblical apocalypse was at hand, much as we fear, with more reason, man’s destruction by nuclear war. “Then as now the remedy for discomforting thoughts was less often to seek comfort than to abstain from thinking” (a typical Medawar aside).

In the second half of the seventeenth century the belief that the rational pursuit of science could improve the human condition engendered a new spirit of optimism.

The repudiation of the concept of decay, the beginning of a sense of the future, an affirmation of the dignity and worthiness of secular learning, the idea that human capabilities might have no upper limit, an excellent recognition of the capabilities of man—these were the seventeenth century’s antidote to despondency.

Medawar calls for a similar antidote in our time. “We wring our hands over the miscarriages of technology and take its benefactions for granted.” “The real trouble is our acute sense of human failure and mismanagement, a new and…oppressive sense of the inadequacy of man.” Nevertheless “to deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.”5

Jean relates that he had worked on this lecture for months, and had moved her to tears when he tried it out on her at home. It still is one of the most eloquent and erudite pleas for science that I know.

Two days after delivering that address Medawar was asked to read the lesson to a large congregation of the British Association assembled in Exeter Cathedral. He chose a passage from chapter seven of the Wisdom of Solomon:

For Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me, for in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clean, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.

He started to read more slowly. Gradually he spoke as if the words were costing him a colossal effort.

For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.

At that moment his speech began to slur, and he collapsed with a cerebral hemorrhage.

It was a fall from the heights of a brilliant career to helpless dependence on life-support machinery, doctors and nurses, and above all on Jean, whose sheer determination to conceal her constant anxiety and to restore Peter to full activity fortified his own “very decided preference for staying alive.”

Jean was the daughter of a much-loved Cambridge doctor who had died of chronic bronchitis at almost the same age. She won a scholarship to Oxford, studied biology, and after graduation, began research in cell biology. On hearing that she had become engaged to a man who was half-Lebanese, her aunt cut off the allowance she had given her for her studies; her mother warned her of having black babies; a well-known writer told a friend of her father’s that she would not be received into society, and a doctor friend of her father’s, asked to treat a small infected wound on Peter’s elbow, viciously demonstrated it to his students as a venereal ulcer characteristic of syphilis and told Jean not to kiss him. Such were the xenophobia and racism prevalent in England in the 1930s. Later Medawar’s scientific accomplishments and superb command of the English language made people forget his foreign origins, and his fateful appointment to the presidency of the British Association shows that he had become part of the Establishment.

  1. 1

    Peter Medawar, Memoirs of a Thinking Radish (Oxford University Press, 1986).

  2. 2

    Medawar coined this phrase in an essay on the naturalist d’Arcy Thompson, I suspect with himself in mind. P.B. Medawar, The Art of the Soluble (London: Methuen, 1958), p. 21.

  3. 3

    Michael Faraday, “The Bakerian Lecture,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (London: 1857), p. 145.

  4. 4

    Laura Fermi, Atoms in the Family (University of Chicago Press, 1954).

  5. 5

    P.B. Medawar, “On ‘The Effecting of All Things Possible,’ ” in The Hope of Progress (Doubleday, 1973).

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