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.

Wives may, as in this book, be a little too reverential when they write about their husbands. There is, however, some criticism here. Early in their marriage she had grumbled at what seemed excessive hours of work in the lab and got the reply: ‘You have first claim on my love, but not on my time.’ Optimal use of time was part of the secret of Medawar’s success. Those of us who lacked his knack were amazed that he could do so much research, write so many books and articles, and yet have so much time for chess, cricket and concerts. Jean comments on some other aspects of his efficiency. He hated disorder: books and tools had to be in their proper places. Hunting for things wasted time which could have been spent on work in the lab. Even when disabled, he thought this essential. As he put it, ‘my thinking is integral with my doing.’ Again to avoid wasting time, both inside the lab and outside, he did not fret about problems unless he himself could do something about them. Jean mentions several characteristics on which I have not seen comments elsewhere. He was more emotional and prone to tears than most of us realised: for example, when using particularly felicitous phrases – either his own or in a quotation. When the native language of his audience was not English, he made as much use as possible of words with Romance rather than Anglo-Saxon roots. And he hated spiders.

As always, Medawar’s writing is interesting, informative and often amusing. The Threat and the Glory contains three hitherto unpublished articles, 11 book reviews, the six Reith Lectures which appeared in book form in 1970 and are now presumably out of print, and eight pieces with less easily defined antecedents. Only two of the articles are of questionable value. One is a brief analysis of the customer/contractor principle for financing research, which is associated with the late Lord Rothschild. It frightened the scientific community but, although harmful, it did less damage than we expected because the ‘customers’ don’t know what they need or what they may be able to get from research and therefore rely, to a great extent, on the research community for advice. The other inclusion of doubtful value is a review of a book exposing the claim that mice which had been dabbed black in places with a felt-tipped pen had taken black skin grafts. There is much information here about the conditions in which grafting is possible, but all this is in other articles and, incidentally, in Jean’s book.

Various aspects of fraud are the theme of two other articles. One assembles some celebrated examples. Mendel’s ‘observed’ numbers of peas with different characteristics, resulting from crosses, come closer to the expected values than is compatible with statistical uncertainly. Presumably the monastery gardeners knew what the Abbé expected and were inclined to be helpful when there was any uncertainty. Statisticians have exposed some more recent, relatively harmless examples of results being too good to be true. The conclusions are usually correct, but the bases for them are not as pretty as they seem. I had a similar experience when another chemist synthesised a substance which I had just synthesised. He miscalculated its theoretical analytical composition, but his analyses nevertheless agreed with the erroneous values while the physical properties of his substance agreed with mine.

Fraud is not always so harmless. Medawar discusses the well-known fraudulent claim by Sir Cyril Burt that he had many observations on the psychology of twins reared together or separated at birth, and some claims for the ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’. There is more on that theme in the Reith Lectures, Such frauds are possible because scientists tend to trust one another, and confidence is a bonding agent. ‘The critical scrutiny of all scientific findings – perhaps especially one’s own – is an unqualified desideratum of scientific progress,’ Medawar adds. ‘Without it science would surely founder – though not more rapidly, perhaps, than it would if the great collaborative expertise of science were to be subjected to an atmosphere of wary and suspicious disbelief.’

‘Is the scientific paper a fraud?’ deals with a quite different aspect of the subject. It excited much discussion when published in 1963. It can be argued, as Medawar does here, that a paper ‘misrepresents the processes of thought that accompanied or gave rise to the work described’. On the other hand, readers, and editors, want to know what the author has discovered and not the tortuous route by which it was discovered, the recording of which would involve writing a diary rather than a paper. If posterity becomes interested in the workings of a scientist’s mind, attempts can be made to understand lab and other notebooks. Hence the flourishing ‘Darwin Industry’. Medawar caricatures the position when he writes: ‘You have to pretend that your mind is, so to speak, a virgin receptacle, an empty vessel, for information which floods into it from the external world for no reason which you yourself have revealed.’ However, the article is a lucid critique of the claims for induction, and a cogent argument for the hypothetico-deductive process, in which, once a hypothesis has been guessed and its consequences deduced, they are then tested as rigorously as facilities and imagination permit.

The title of this collection comes from the opening words of a review of three books on the dangers and potentialities of genetic, or more broadly biological, engineering. Medawar argues that both have been exaggerated; the level of skill needed for success in this potentially hazardous work is great enough to exclude cranks and lunatics, and access to the necessary specialised equipment is controlled by scientific committees.

While reviewing a biography of Florey, under whose guidance Medawar and his wife started research, he points out that there was no real conflict between the contributions of Florey and Fleming in establishing the value of penicillin. Fleming, may have found a productive strain of penicillium accidentally, but had spent most of his life looking for just such anti-bacterial agents; and although he vigorously defended the principle of individual research, untrammelled by committees, any sane scientific planning committee would have supported his work. Florey had wide interests, understood the practicalities of science thoroughly, and would have been successful in almost any activity. I am sorry Medawar did not comment on the gust of fresh air that Florey let into the then fusty corridors of the Royal Society when he became its president. A review of a book about insulin makes many interesting points about Banting’s upbringing and outlook. It praises the business acumen of the University of Toronto, which took out adequate patents on insulin and thus circumvented what Medawar calls the skullduggery shown later by the drug companies over penicillin.

During this century medicine changed from being an art to being a science. An account of a book by Lewis Thomas, written, like the two previous reviews, for the LRB (Vol. 5 No 3, Vol. 6 No 2), includes much biographical information about the manner of life of Thomas and his father as medical students and practitioners in the USA. Not unexpectedly, he eventually gets on to his favourite subject – graft rejection. Intrigued by Thomas’s suggestion that graft compatibility may be akin to mating preference, and that that may be influenced by smell. Medawar wonders whether tracker dogs could detect the relevant differences. He describes a visit to Hendon Police College to study dog-training techniques. That was in 1983: too late, sadly, to start experiments.

Aspects of autobiography appear in several articles; four are exclusively autobiographical. These amplify the account in Jean’s book and his own Memoir of a Thinking Radish. In an unpublished BBC interview with two scientific journalists, he said he had never had a ‘grand revelation’ which made him shout eureka; instead, a growing feeling of dissatisfaction with existing explanations acted as the stimulus for ideas and was then augmented by an ‘artisan’s pleasure’ in personal dexterity. An article written after his stroke, and the consequent experience of being a patient, gives much useful advice in a light-hearted manner. ‘A patient’s letting go of his hold on life rather than exposing his friends and close relations to distress and to what may be crippling expense could be a manifestation of real greatness of mind,’ he writes in ‘The Life Instinct and Dignity in Dying’; and although he had ‘a very decided preference for living’, he doubts the existence of either life or death instincts.