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Sir Peter Medawar

Born 28 February 1915(1915-02-28)
Petrópolis, Brazil
Died 2 October 1987 (aged 72)
London, United Kingdom
Residence London
Nationality British
Fields Zoology; Immunology
Institutions Birmingham University
University College London
National Institute for Medical Research
Alma mater Oxford University
Influences Howard Florey; J.Z. Young
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1960; Order of Merit 1981

Sir Peter Brian Medawar OM CBE FRS (28 February 1915 – 2 October 1987) was a British zoologist. Medawar's work on graft rejection and the discovery of acquired immune tolerance was fundamental to the practice of tissue and organ transplants. He was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. Until partially disabled by a cerebral infarction, he was Director of the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill.




Early years

Medawar was born on 28 February 1915, in Petrópolis, Brazil (a town 40 miles north of Rio de Janeiro) of a British mother and a Lebanese father. His status as a British citizen was acquired at birth: "My birth was registered at the British Consulate in good time to acquire the status of 'natural-born British subject'.[1] Medawar left Brazil for England in 1918, and lived there for the rest of his life.

Medawar was educated at Marlborough College and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he eventually became a Fellow.


Medawar was professor of zoology at the University of Birmingham (1947–51) and University College London (1951–62). In 1962 he was appointed director of the National Institute for Medical Research, and became professor of experimental medicine at the Royal Institution (1977–83), and president of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School (1981–87). Medawar was a scientist of great inventiveness who was interested in many other subjects including opera, philosophy and cricket.

He was knighted in 1965[2] and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1981.

Later years

Whilst attending the annual British Association meeting in 1969, Medawar suffered a stroke when reading the lesson at Exeter Cathedral, a duty which falls on every new President of the British Association. It was, as he said, "monstrous bad luck because Jim Whyte Black had not yet devised beta-blockers, which slow the heart-beat and could have preserved my health and my career".[3] Medawar’s failing health may have had repercussions for medical science and the relations between the scientific community and government. Before the stroke, Medawar was one of Britain's most influential scientists, especially in the medico-biological field.

After the impairment of his speech and movement Medawar, with his wife's help, reorganised his life and continued to write and do research though on a greatly restricted scale. However, more haemorrhages followed and in 1987 Medawar died. He is buried — as is his wife Jean (1913–2005) — at Alfriston in East Sussex.[4]

Views on religion

"... I believe that a reasonable case can be made for saying, not that we believe in God because He exists but rather that He exists because we believe in Him... Considered as an element of the world, God has the same degree and kind of objective reality as do other products of mind... I regret my disbelief in God and religious answers generally, for I believe it would give satisfaction and comfort to many in need of it if it were possible to discover and propound good scientific and philosophic reasons to believe in God... To abdicate from the rule of reason and substitute for it an authentication of belief by the intentness and degree of conviction with which we hold it can be perilous and destructive... I am a rationalist—something of a period piece nowadays, I admit..." [5]


Early research

His involvement with what became transplant research began during WWII, when he investigated possible improvements in skin grafts. It became focused in 1949, when Burnet advanced the hypothesis that during embryonic life and immediately after birth, cells gradually acquire the ability to distinguish between their own tissue substances on the one hand and unwanted cells and foreign material on the other.

With Rupert Billingham, he published a seminal paper in 1951.[6] Santa J. Ono, the American immunologist, has described the enduring impact of this paper to modern science.[7]

Outcome of research

Medawar was awarded his Nobel Prize in 1960 with Burnet for their work in tissue grafting which is the basis of organ transplants, and their discovery of acquired immunological tolerance. This work was used in dealing with skin grafts required after burns. Medawar's work resulted in a shift of emphasis in the science of immunology from one that attempts to deal with the fully developed immunity mechanism to one that attempts to alter the immunity mechanism itself, as in the attempt to suppress the body's rejection of organ transplants.

Theory of ageing

Medawar's 1951 lecture An unsolved problem of biology (published 1952) addressed the question of why evolution has permitted us to deteriorate with age, although (1) ageing lowers our individual fitness, and (2) there is no obvious necessity for ageing.[8] His insight was that the force of natural selection is weaker late in life (because the fecundity of younger age-groups is overwhelmingly more significant in producing the next generation). What happens to an organism after reproduction is only weakly reflected in natural selection by the effect on its younger relatives. He pointed out that likelihood of death at various times of life, as judged by life tables, was an indirect measure of fitness, that is, the capacity of an organism to propagate its genes. Life tables for humans show, for example that the lowest likelihood of death in human females comes at about age 14, which in primitive societies would likely be an age of peak reproduction. This has served as the basis for all three modern theories for the evolution of ageing.


His books include The Uniqueness of Man, which includes essays on immunology, graft rejection and acquired immune tolerance; Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought; The Art of the Soluble, a book of essays, later reprinted in Pluto's Republic; Advice to a Young Scientist; Aristotle to Zoos (with his wife Jean Shinglewood Taylor); The Life Science, The Limits of Science and his last, in 1986, Memoirs of a Thinking Radish, an autobiography. One of his best-known essays is his 1961 demolition of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man, of which he said: "Its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself".[9]


  1. ^ Medawar P.B. 1986. Memoirs of a thinking radish: an autobiography. Oxford. p5
  2. ^ "Honours and Awards, Home Office" (), The London Gazette (43819): 10841, 1965,  
  3. ^ Medawar P.B. 1986. Memoirs of a thinking radish: an autobiography. Oxford. p153
  4. ^ Leslie Baruch Brent. "Jean Medawar's obituary" Independent, The (London). May 12, 2005.
  5. ^ Peter Medawar 1984. 'The question of the existence of God' in The limits of science Harper and Row.
  6. ^ Billingham, R.E.; Medawar, P.B. (1951), "The Technique of Free Skin Grafting in Mammals", Journal of Experimental Biology 28 (3): 385–402,  
  7. ^ Ono, Santa Jeremy (2004), "The Birth of Transplantation Immunology: the Billingham--Medawar Experiments at Birmingham University and University College London", Journal of Experimental Biology 207 (23): 4013–4014, doi:10.1242/jeb.01293, PMID 15498946,  
  8. ^ This second premise is weak, because it assumes (i.e. begs the question) that cellular repair mechanisms always operate perfectly. If they do not, there is a clear implication that ageing will occur.
  9. ^ Medawar, P.B. (1961), "Critical Notice", Mind LXX (277): 99–106, doi:10.1093/mind/LXX.277.99,  


External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Sir Peter Medawar (February 28, 1915 – October 2, 1987) was a Brazilian-born English scientist best known for his work on how the immune system rejects or accepts organ transplants. He was co-winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet.


  • We cannot point to a single definitive solution of any one of the problems that confront 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.
    • Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Exeter, 3 September 1969
  • Today the world changes so quickly that in growing up we take leave not just of youth but of the world we were young in. I suppose we all realize the degree to which fear and resentment of what is new is really a lament for the memories of our childhood.
    • Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Exeter, 3 September 1969
  • There is no such thing as a Scientific Mind. Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics. What sort of mind or temperament can all these people be supposed to have in common? Obligative scientists must be very rare, and most people who are in fact scientists could easily have been something else instead.
    • "Hypothesis and Imagination" (Times Literary Supplement, 25 Oct 1963)
  • Simultaneous discovery is utterly commonplace, and it was only the rarity of scientists, not the inherent improbability of the phenomenon, that made it remarkable in the past. Scientists on the same road may be expected to arrive at the same destination, often not far apart.
    • Peter Medawar, "The Act of Creation" (New Statesman, 19 June 1964)
  • A scientist is no more a collector and classifier of facts than a historian is a man who complies and classifies a chronology of the dates of great battles and major discoveries.
    • (with Jean Medawar), Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology (1985)
  • Creosote has a pretty technological smell.
    • Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Exeter, 3 September 1969
  • We shall not read it for its sociological insights, which are non-existent, nor as science fiction, because it has a general air of implausibility; but there is one high poetic fancy in the New Atlantis that stays in the mind after all its fancies and inventions have been forgotten. In the New Atlantis, an island kingdom lying in very distant seas, the only commodity of external trade is — light: Bacon's own special light, the light of understanding.
    • (on Francis Bacon's New Atlantis) Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Exeter, 3 September 1969
  • We wring our hands over the miscarriages of technology and take its benefactions for granted. We are dismayed by air pollution but not proportionately cheered up by, say, the virtual abolition of poliomyelitis.
    • Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Exeter, 3 September 1969
  • Scientists are entitled to be proud of their accomplishments, and what accomplishments can they call 'theirs' except the things they have done or thought of first? People who criticize scientists for wanting to enjoy the satisfaction of intellectual ownership are confusing possessiveness with pride of possession. Meanness, secretiveness and, sharp practice are as much despised by scientists as by other decent people in the world of ordinary everyday affairs; nor, in my experience, is generosity less common among them, or less highly esteemed.
    • "Lucky Jim" (New York Review of Books, 28 March 1968)
  • But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever about. This is an advantage which scientists enjoy over most other people engaged in intellectual pursuits, and they enjoy it at all levels of capability. To be a first-rate scientist it is not necessary (and certainly not sufficient) to be extremely clever, anyhow in a pyrotechnic sense. One of the great social revolutions brought about by scientific research has been the democratization of learning. Anyone who combines strong common sense with an ordinary degree of imaginativeness can become a creative scientist, and a happy one besides, in so far as happiness depends upon being able to develop to the limit of one's abilities.
    • "Lucky Jim" (New York Review of Books, 28 March 1968)
  • Watson's childlike vision makes them seem like the creatures of a Wonderland, all at a strange contentious noisy tea-party which made room for him because for people like him, at this particular kind of party, there is always room.
    • "Lucky Jim" (New York Review of Books, 28 March 1968)
  • Scientific discovery is a private event, and the delight that accompanies it, or the despair of finding it illusory, does not travel. One scientist may get great satisfaction from another’s work and admire it deeply; it may give him great intellectual pleasure; but it gives him no sense of participation in the discovery, it does not carry him away, and his appreciation of it does not depend on his being carried away. If it were otherwise the inspirational origin of scientific discovery would never have been in doubt.
    • ‘Hypothesis and Imagination’ in The Art of the Soluble, 1967.
  • If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble. Both are immensely practical-minded affairs.
    • Review of Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, in the New Statesman, 19 June 1964
  • It is not envy or malice, as so many people think, but utter despair that has persuaded many educational reformers to recommend the abolition of the English public schools.
    • Introduction to The Art of the Soluble, 1967
  • Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • In no sense other than an utterly trivial one is reproduction the inverse of chemical disintegration. It is a misunderstanding of genetics to suppose that reproduction is only 'intended' to make facsimiles, for parasexual processes of genetical exchange are to be found in the simplest living things.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • There is much else in the literary idiom of nature-philosophy: nothing-buttery, for example, always part of the minor symptomatology of the bogus.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • The Phenomenon of Man stands square in the tradition of Naturphilosophie, a philosophical indoor pastime of German origin which does not seem even by accident (though there is a great deal of it) to have contributed anything of permanent value to the storehouse of human thought.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • I do not propose to criticize the fatuous argument I have just outlined; here, to expound is to expose.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • How have people come to be taken in by The Phenomenon of Man? We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • French is not a language that lends itself naturally to the opaque and ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has according resorted to the use of that tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • It would have been a great disappointment to me if Vibration did not somewhere make itself felt, for all scientistic mystics either vibrate in person or find themselves resonant with cosmic vibrations; but I am happy to say that on page 266 Teilhard will be found to do so.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • In spite of all the obstacles that Teilhard perhaps wisely puts in our way, it is possible to discern a train of thought in The Phenomenon of Man.
    • Review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Mind, 70, pp 99 to 105.
  • To be creative, scientists need libraries and laboratories and the company of other scientists; certainly a quiet and untroubled life is a help. A scientist's work is in no way deepened or made more cogent by privation, anxiety, distress, or emotional harassment. To be sure, the private lives of scientists may be strangely and even comically mixed up, but not in ways that have any special bearing n the nature and quality of their work. If a scientist were to cut off an ear, no one would interpret such an action as evidence of an unhappy torment of creativity; nor will a scientist be excused any bizarrerie, however extravagant, on the grounds that he is a scientist, however brilliant.
    • Advice to a Young Scientist (1979)
  • I believe in "intelligence," and I believe also that there are inherited differences in intellectual ability, but I do not believe that intelligence is a simple scalar endowment that can be quanitified by attaching a single figure to it—an I.Q. or the like.
    • Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), p.25, quoting his own article "Unnatural science", New York Review of Books 24 (Feb 3, 1977), p.13–18
  • I once spoke to a human geneticist who declared that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless, so I tried calling him unintelligent. He was annoyed, and it did not appease him when I went on to ask how he came to attach such a clear meaning to the notion of lack of intelligence. We never spoke again.
    • Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), p.25, footnote to previous quotation.
  • The attempt to discover and promulgate the truth is nevertheless an obligation upon all scientists, one that must be persevered in no matter what the rebuffs—for otherwise what is the point in being a scientist?
    • Aristotle to Zoos, 1983
  • The purpose of scientific enquiry is not to compile an inventory of factual information, nor to build up a totalitarian world picture of natural Laws in which every event that is not compulsory is forbidden. We should think of it rather as a logically articulated structure of justifiable beliefs about nature.
    • Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought, 1969
  • The similarity between them is not the taxonomic key to some other, deeper, affinity, and our recognizing its existence marks the end, not the inauguration, of a train of thought.
    • In ‘Herbert Spencer and the Law of General Evolution’. Spencer Lecture, Oxford, 1963: reprinted in Medawar, P. B. (1967). The Art of the Soluble. Methuen, London. Pp 37-58.
  • The bells which toll for mankind are—most of them, anyway—like the bells of Alpine cattle; they are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a cheerful and harmonious sound.
    • The Future of Man, 1959
  • It is the great glory as well as the great threat of science that everything which is in principle possible can be done if the intention to do it is sufficiently resolute.
    • The Threat and the Glory, 1977
  • Observation is the generative act in scientific discovery. For all its aberrations, the evidence of the senses is essentially to be relied upon--provided we observe nature as a child does, without prejudices and preconceptions, but with that clear and candid vision which adults lose and scientists must strive to regain.
    • Medawar, Peter (1982). Pluto's Republic, p. 99. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • If a person a) is poorly, b) receives treatment intended to make him better, and c) gets better, no power of reasoning known to medical science can convince him that it may not have been the treatment that restored his health.
    • P. B. Medawar (1967) The art of the soluble. London: Methuen, p. 14.

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