In Memoriam Peter Medawar

Editor's note: On October 2, 1987, the British immunologist Sir Peter Medawar died at a London hospital following a stroke. Among other achievements, Sir Peter shared the 1960 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine with Sir Macfarlane Burnet for their joint work on the theory of acquired immunological tolerance. The work led to tremendous advances in liver, heart and kidney transplants. He was also a noted author and philosopher of science (see THE SCIENTIST, November 17, 1986, p. 23, for a re

Jan 25, 1988
The Scientist Staff
Editor's note: On October 2, 1987, the British immunologist Sir Peter Medawar died at a London hospital following a stroke. Among other achievements, Sir Peter shared the 1960 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine with Sir Macfarlane Burnet for their joint work on the theory of acquired immunological tolerance. The work led to tremendous advances in liver, heart and kidney transplants. He was also a noted author and philosopher of science (see THE SCIENTIST, November 17, 1986, p. 23, for a review of his autobiography, Memoir of a Thinking Radish) On October 19, 1987 his widow, Lady Jean Medawar, was joined by Lewis Thomas, Robert A. Good, Rupert Billingham, Edward A. Boyse and H. Sherwood Lawrence in a memorial service for Sir Peter at New York University School of Medicine. Here are abridged versions of their remarks.

Peter Medawar possessed more friends, all round the world, than anyone I’ve ever known or heard of. Possessed is the word: they hung on his words, read with close attention and vast pleasure everything he wrote, rejoiced in his achievements, worried endlessly about his health, wondered at his knack for survival and his outright defiance of all the rules of neurology, and adored him. Fifty, a hundred years from now, Medawar will be a steady source of Ph.D. theses for graduate students from any number of disciplines—biology and immunology, of course, since he and his colleagues opened up the fields cleared by Ehrlich, Bordet and Landsteiner in earlier generations, revealing in a stroke of classical Medawar experimentation the new and entrancing depths lying just below. I can already imagine the doctoral dissertations: the tolerance of mice, the tolerance of twin cows, something less than tolerance of psychoanalysis, outright immunologic rejection of Teihard de Chardin, the acceptance and revascularization of Francis Bacon Then there will be the other scholars, deep in another wing of the library stacks, the Eng. Lit. graduate students on the track of Medawar the 20th century man of letters. His books— those by Peter and those others written by Peter and Jean---will still be on the shelves, together with any number of proceedings of international congresses and bilogocal symposia. These latter will, I predict, be of special interest, for Peter is in those proceedings, on the record, with some of the wisest and wittiest remarks of the 20th century. And then, of course, there will be the philosophy students, fingering earnestly through the stacks trying to make sense of the 20th century and discovering, I hope, through a close reading of Medawar’s works, that the century made whatever sense it turned out to make because of science. This was his central conviction, the source of his faith and pleasure, his tenacious hope for the future.

—President Emeritus, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, New York

I recall a time in the mid-1960s, when. . . I came to England. I had not been to England before because I had a love-hate, or should I say love-fear, relationship with British biomedical science. But, with some urging, I arrived at Mill Hill. It was on Peter’s day in the laboratory, so he could see me only at lunch and at tea time.... At lunch and at tea with Sir Peter, I thought I was the one doing the teaching. He showed great interest in and exhibited penetrating understanding of what I was saying, and he asked many, many questions.... When we had finished our tea, and having answered many questions for Sir Peter and his group, I stood to depart, Sir Peter said, “Bob, I am so glad you finally found your way to England because we have so much to teach you.

— Chairman, department of pediatrics,
University of South Florida,
St. Petersburg

There is little need to dwell on the scope and universal impact of Peter’s scientific contributions, which revolutionized immunological thought and triggered its current expanding horizon. The reality of organ transplantation currently performed on a global scale as a routine life-saving procedure is a daily paean of praise for the man who showed the way.

—Jeffrey Bergstein Professor of Medicine,
NYU Medical Center

At University College, London, late one afternoon, Peter came to my laboratory looking rather shaky and holding a blood soaked gauze around a finger. “I’ve just had an accident cleaning some glassware,” he said, inviting me to come into his lab, where he’d put everything ready for me to sew him up. I examined the wound and was horrified by its depth and the anatomical structures revealed. He had provided for my use the finest available eyeless suture needles of the type we used to sew up mice. The first three needles absolutely refused to penetrate his skin and bent out of shape. But what really bothered me was Peter’s evident discomfort and pale face. I feared that he might collapse on me. I can’t say how relieved I was when, a few days later, he showed me the result of this piece of never-published collaborative work on wound healing.

—Retired chairman, department of cell biology

University of Texas Health Science Center,
Dallas

... My luck had taken a decided turn for the better when I found a place in Peter Gorer’s laboratory at Guy’s in London. That was half my good fortune. The other half is that this brought me to Medawar’s doorstep.

Hoping to get a foot in that door, I wrote him a letter, judiciously worded in case I might get foisted onto someone asking to come over to hear about skin grafting. I needn’t have been so circumspect—patting a stray dog was all in a day’s work to Medawar.

He invited me to meet him at University College on a Saturday morning. When I arrived and confessed that my first object was to see the technique of skin grafting, he remarked "Around here, skin grafting isn’t a technique; it’s nervous tic.” Then he went on to demonstrate skin grafting himself, meanwhile opening a conversation on some medical question to put me at ease.

This remains my lasting image of Medawar, to the most junior people no less thar to others: invariably warm, gracious and inimitably entertaining; the arch exponent of the light touch, the perennial adversary of the stuffy and pretentious.

—Member, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute,
New York

Peter always said that one of the reasons he loved coming to America was that there seemed to be a party every night.

I think that the best I can do to celebrate Peter’s life is to repeat my favorite passage from his writings. When he first read it to me, I thought it was so beautiful that I burst into tears.

It comes trom his essay The Effecting of All Things Possible.” He delivered it in his address to the British Association in Exeter in 1969, just before he suffered his first stroke. ... The last sentence was written by Thomas Hobbes 300 years ago. I have had it carved on our tombstone. I agree, too.

“We cannot point to a single definitive solution of any one of the problems that confronts us—political, economic, social or moral, that is, having to do with the conduct of life. We are still beginners, and for that reason may hope to improve. To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind. There is no need to be dismayed by the fact that we cannot yet envisage a definitive solution of our problems, a resting-place beyond which we need not try to go. Because he likened life to a face, and defined felicity as the state of mind of those in the front of it, Thomas Hobbes has always been thought of as the arch materialist, the first man to uphold go-getting as a creed. But that is a travesty of Hobbes’s opinion. He was a go-getter in a sense, but it was the going, not the getting, he extolled. As Hobbes conceived it, the race had no finishing post. The great thing about the race was to be in it, to be a contestant in the attempt to make the world a better place, and it was a spiritual death he had in mind when he said that to forsake the course is to die. ‘There is no such thing as a perpetual tranquillity of mind while we live here,’ he told us in Leviathan, ‘because life itself is but motion and can never be without desire, or without fear, no more than without sense; there can be no contentment but in proceeding.’ I agree.”


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.13, January 25, 1988)
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