Medawartime

June Goodfield

  • Memoir of a Thinking Radish: An Autobiography by Peter Medawar
    Oxford, 209 pp, £12.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 19 217737 0

My first encounter with Peter Medawar revealed something about us both. When he was the new Mason Professor of Zoology in the University of Birmingham I was a student at University College, Nottingham, and one of my tasks as president of the student Zoological Society was to give votes of thanks to visiting speakers. So when I learned that one Dr Peter Medawar would be speaking on the subject of individuality in animals, I sat down and carefully prepared a short speech which I proposed to deliver with every appearance of total spontaneity. Fortunately for my vote of thanks, part of the previous term had been spent studying animals such as sea anemones and sponges which merge into colonies, where the issue of who, or what, was really the individual was both entertaining and, we were assured, significant.

Our speaker arrived, his lecture was delivered and listened to by all with admiration – save me. In my case, admiration was rapidly replaced by horror. For with every word spoken it was clear that my vote of thanks really was going to be spontaneous. Peter Medawar was talking, not about esoteric sponges, but about how, and why, skin transplants grafted from one individual to another would always be sloughed off and how this might possibly be circumvented. The problem, as the war had shown, was crucial. Battle of Britain pilots, suffering from third-degree burns, had in some cases lost so much skin that there was no alternative but to transplant skin from a ‘foreigner’, a process that gave only temporary relief: the foreign tissue always ended by being rejected.

I stumbled to my feet and as best I could delivered myself of a short spontaneous speech. Three hours later, after the ritual of sherry and dinner, staff and students were waiting on the steps for the taxi that would take our speaker to the railway station. As the taxi drew up, he turned to me and said: ‘Votes of thanks are notoriously difficult to do and I think you did it superbly.’

This kind gesture to someone very unimportant, in circumstances where most people would have stayed chatting up their intellectual peers, was – as I was to learn over the years – typical of Peter Medawar, and as my contacts with him grew, two elements of that encounter also continued to develop. One was my ever-increasing sense of this personal charm and kindness; the second his interest in, contributions to and passionate conviction about the problem of individuality, not now in animals so much as in human beings.

I may not have heard of Peter Medawar in 1948 but I soon did – in a variety of ways and in a variety of places. My own career as a research scientist quickly faltered: after one year of research at Oxford it was obvious that I lacked that obsessional interest in the world and the desire to find out just how it works – an obsession which must inevitably lead to the exclusion of many other things, such as a deep interest in people and a desire to find out how they work – which is required of the good scientist. ‘Most of the day-to-day business of science,’ he once reminded an assembly of scientists, ‘consists of trying to find out if our imagined world is anything like the real one. If it is not, we have to think again.’ It was the processes of human imagination and the role of the individual in these processes that fascinated me, and I was to use the words ‘imagined world’ in the title of a book I wrote on that theme. But what fascinated Medawar were the implications of his phrase ‘we have to think again.’ The skill of scientists, their individual styles perhaps, can be found in the manner in which they try to work out ways and means of deciding whether or not their imagined world is anything like the real one – i.e. in their design and execution of experiments. Medawar was not only brilliant in experimental design and execution: he was a positive genius at sensing which was the right experiment to do at any given time. He once told me that he had received a very early lesson in this respect.

As a graduate student at Oxford he had become extremely excited when reading the early papers of the distinguished Austrian/American biologist, Paul Weiss, who had transplanted the legs of a salamander from back to front and left to right and found the specificity of the original position not only retained but reflected in the very limb movements. Medawar was so entranced and intrigued by the phenomenon and what it suggested, in both theoretical and experimental terms, that he rushed up to Goodrich, who was then his professor, and urged him immediately to switch his attention to what Medawar now felt might turn out to be the most important phenomenon in contemporary biology. Goodrich looked at him with a stern and quizzical air reminiscent of Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, and told him to go away and bring back Weiss’s paper in twenty years’ time, when, he explained, zoologists might be in a position to deal with Weiss’s phenomenon. What Medawar learnt on that occasion was the concept of ‘unripe time’ – a lesson he put to good use in his own work and constantly taught others. He often spoke of the really gifted scientist as the person who is not twenty steps but one step ahead of nature and the cutting edge of research, a person who can anticipate exactly where the barriers to understanding will crumble and where the new frontiers will coalesce.

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