Sir Peter Medawar
Peter Brian Medawar was born in Rio de Janeiro in February 1915 to an English mother and a Lebanese father. He came to Magdalen as a ‘Commoner’ to read Zoology in 1932, becoming a Senior Demy (or research Scholar) in 1936 and a Fellow of the College between 1938 and 1944 and then again between 1946 and 1947, when he accepted the Chair of Zoology at Birmingham University. At Oxford he was much influenced by Howard Florey in whose department he was to meet his wife Jean Taylor. They married in 1937.
His Nobel Prize was awarded (jointly with Sir MacFarlane Burnet) in 1960 for their work in tissue grafting which is basic to organ transplants. This work stemmed from war-time research, when improvements were sought for dealing with skin grafts required after severe burns. The significant contribution was the demonstration that graft rejection can be entirely prevented in mice and chickens if foreign cells from the future graft donor are introduced into the recipient during foetal or neo-natal life (i.e. when the animals are immunologically immature). This represented a clear demonstraton that the immunological barriers to the transplantation of foreign tissue and organ grafts – thought to be insurmountable – could be overcome by subtle immunological interference, opening up a vast field of scientific endeavour.
He was made an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen in 1961 and a year later became Director of the National Institute for Medical Research. In 1969, when only 54, he suffered a massive brain haemorrhage while reading the lesson at Exeter Cathedral. He was seriously handicapped for the rest of his life but remained extraordinarily active mentally.
Medawar was a scientist of great inventiveness who was interested in many other subjects including opera, philosophy, cricket and the role of science in the world. He was an exceptionally brilliant writer with a gift for clear exposition and produced a stream of books and essays, many of which continue to be in print. For some time his attention was directed to the field of cancer where he worked, at Northwick Park, with a group audaciously seeking a cancer vaccine. He was recognised as one of the outstanding scientists of his generation, gifted with an infectious enthusiasm.
His last book, published in 1986, was entitled ‘Memoirs of a Thinking Radish’ which was an account of his scientific aspirations and working life. He describes in it what it is like to be physically handicapped, avoiding both self-pity and self-revelation. His Reith Lectures of 1959 had been entitled ‘The Future of Man’.
Medawar died in 1987. He had been awarded virtually every honour known to the world of science, an FRS at the age of 34, collecting scores of honorary degrees and a knighthood in 1965. He had been made Companion of Honour (1972) and a member of the Order of Merit (1981). He was the first President of the International Transplantation Society and became President of the British Association in 1969.