Medawar’s Knack

N.W. Pirie

  • A Very Decided Preference: Life with Peter Medawar by Jean Medawar
    Oxford, 256 pp, £15.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 19 217779 6
  • The Threat and the Glory: Reflections on Science and Scientists by Peter Medawar, edited by David Pyke
    Oxford, 291 pp, £15.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 19 217778 8

Jean Taylor met Peter Medawar when they were students. When she married him she therefore knew that he was an extremely able biologist, but she cannot have foreseen what an energetic polymath she was attaching herself to. Medawar’s ability led at first to frequent moves to better jobs, with consequent house-hunting, and to much travel, on which she accompanied him, to lecture and attend conferences. All this is described gaily in the first part of her book. Then, when Medawar was 54, he was partly paralysed by a stroke and lived with increasing disability, because of further strokes, for another 18 years. After about a year his mind recovered its old activity and his enthusiasm for travel and social life returned. In spite of his disabilities and of frequent medical crises, he accepted invitations to confer all over the world, with Jean as a willing and essential companion. Few people could have coped as smoothly as she did, or enjoyed the interleaved pleasures as much. The title of her book comes from Medawar’s reply to someone who doubted the pleasure of life with handicaps such as his: ‘I have a very decided preference for remaining alive.’ The book is mainly about his activities and attitudes, but her enthusiasms – for art and gardening, for example-and her own work in Family Planning get adequate space. She is sometimes surprisingly frank about her failings; and her comments on the failings of some hotels and more or less identifiable restaurants, doctors and nurses are equally frank and usually entertaining.

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