The son of an English woman and a Lebanese business man, Medawar was born in Rio de Janeiro and brought to Britain at the end of World War 1. He was educated at Oxford and remained there to work under Howard Florey (later Nobel Laureate).

His first researches concerned factors affecting tissue culture growth but during World War 1, he turned his attention to medical biology. He subsequently developed a concentrated solution of blood -clotting protein fibrinogen which could be used clinically as a biological glue to fix together damaged nerves and keep nerve grafts in position.

The terrible burns of many war casualties led Medawar to study the reasons why skin grafts from donors are rejected. He realised each individual develops his own immunological system and that the length of time a graft lasts depends on how closely related the recipient and donor are. He found that grafting was successful not only between identical twins but also between nonidentical or fraternal twins. It had already been shown in cattle that tissues, notably the red cell precursors are exchanged between foetuses. This led to the suggestion by Macfarlane Burnet that the immunological system is not developed at conception but is gradually acquired. Thus, if an embryo is injected with the tissues of a future donor, the animal after birth should be tolerant to any grafts from that person.

Medawar tested this hypothesis by injecting mouse embryos verifying that they do not have the ability to form antibodies against foreign tissue but do acquire immunological tolerance to it. For this discovery, Medawar and Burnet, were awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize for Physiology or medicine.

Medawar moved from Oxford in 1947 to the chair of Zoology at Birmingham, a post he held until 1951, when he was appointed Professor of Zoology at University college, London. In 1962 he accepted the post of Director of the National Institute for Medical Research. For some years he tried to combine his research work with a heavy administrative load.

It was his seminal work on tissue rejection resulting from work on skin grafts that later developed into his discovery of acquired immunological tolerance.

For his scientific works he is regarded as the “father of organ transplantation”. The work of Medawar and Burnett directly laid the foundation for the first successful organ transplantation in humans, specifically kidney transplantation carried out by an American physician Joseph Murray, who was also awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990.

Medawar was the “foremost biologist of his generation,” according to the British immunologist N. Avrion Mitchison. His work on immunological tolerance “performed the immensely important service of making organ transplantation scientifically respectable and gave the clinicians a well-defined goal to attain. Moreover, antigen-specific suppression of the immune response by something akin to acquired tolerance remains an aim of research in organ transplantation and auto-immunity.

Medawar was a great scientist whose intellectual achievements and endowments are not likely ever again to be combined within one man.

Medawar was the recipient of various prestigious awards and medals. Constraints of space would permit me to mention only few.

The British government conferred him a CBE in 1958 knighted him in 1965, and appointed him to the Order of the companions of Honour in 1972, and Order of Merit in 1981. He received the Copley Medal in 1969. He was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science during 1968–1969. He was awarded the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the popularisation if Science. He was elected a member of the American Society of Immunologists in 1971, and elected foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959, the American Philosophical Society in 1961, and the US National Academy of Sciences in 1965.

According to David Pyke Medawar was three great men. He was a great scientist, a man of great courage, and a great writer. He was supremely creative both as a scientist and as a writer. defining creativity as the faculty of mind or spirit that empowers us to bring into existence, something ostensibly out of nothing, something of beauty, order or significance.

According to eminent science writer Lewis Thomas, Peter Medawar possessed more friends all around the world than anyone he had ever known or heard of. Possessed is the word: they hung on his words, read with close attention and vast pleasure everything he wrote, rejoiced in his achievements, worried endlessly about his health, wondered at his knack for survival. Fifty a hundred years from now Medawar will be steady source Ph.D., thesis for graduate students, from any number of disciplines- biology and immunology. He has left intellectual marks all through the laboratories of American and European Universities.

Medawar is remembered for his wit both in person and in popular writings. Famous zoologists such as Richard Dawkins referred to him as “the wittiest of all scientific writers”, and Stephen Jay Gould as “the cleverest man I have ever known”.

He was physically robust, with a booming voice noted particularly during his lectures. He was about 6’5” tall, with the build and carriage of a Viking and with the pride of bearing that comes from good looks known to be possessed.

Medawar also established himself as a brilliant and delightful science writer. From the late 1950s until the end of his life, he wrote or co-wrote over one dozen books on science and the philosophy of science aimed at a popular audience. Constraints of space permit me to name only a few The Future of Man (1957 [originally delivered as the BBC Reith Lectures]), his autobiography, Memoir of a Thinking Radish, Pluto’s Republic (a collection of thought provoking essays), The limits of science, Advice to a young scientist, and the Art of the Soluble” to name six. His lyrical prose considered as literature, revealed his complete mastery of style and rhetoric. In some of his essays he condemned pseudoscientists employing a mixture of sarcasm, contempt, and irony. Again constraints of space would allow me quote only a few.

About Teilhard’s: “The Phenomenon of man:”

It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created something like a sensation upon its publication in France, and some reviewers hereabouts called it the Book of the Year — one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricke 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. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense.

About Economics not being a science:

Another property that sets the genuine sciences from those that arrogate to themselves the title without their really earning it is their predictive capability, Newton and cosmology generally are tested by every entry in a nautical almanac corroborated everytime the tide rises or recedes. according to the book as it is also corroborated by the periodic appearance on schedule of for example Halley’s Comet. Iexpect that its embarrassing infirmity of prediction has been the most important single factor the coveted designation of “science”.

About the unnatural sciences:

(Rocket science, computer science, engineering, and statistics) Medawar is inclined to regard the first two as Contradictory terms, if not oxymorons in the poetical sense!

“If a broad line of demarcation is drawn between the natural sciences and what can only be described as the unnatural sciences, it will at once be recognized as a distinguishing mark of the latter that their practitioners try most painstakingly to imitate what they believe—quite wrongly, alas for them—to be the distinctive manners and observances of the natural sciences. Among these are

  • the belief that measurement and numeration are intrinsically praiseworthy activities (the worship, indeed, of what Ernst Gombrich calls idola quantitatis);
  •  the whole discredited farrago of inductivism—especially the belief that facts are prior to ideas and that a sufficiently voluminous compilation of facts can be processed by a calculus of discovery in such a way as to yield general principles and natural-seeming laws;
  • another distinguishing mark of unnatural scientists is their faith in the efficacy of statistical formulas, particularly when processed by a computer—the use of which is in itself interpreted as a mark of scientific manhood. There is no need to cause offense by specifying the unnatural sciences, for their practitioners will recognize themselves easily: the shoe belongs where it fits.

He 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”. 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 biomedical field.

But Medawar was remembered by his friends and colleagues for more than just his scientific accomplishments. Göran Möller declared that Medawar “represented the very best of the British University tradition: a critical but pleasant personality, an imaginative and honest mind.”

But he was so courageous that his stroke did not allow his ailment to slow down his creative work. David Pike observed ” What a figure he was, tall, still extremely handsome, half -blind, walking with a stick and a caliper, his left arm in a sling, his speech a little distinct but punctuated by laughter. His physical problems were ignored.

He was heroic in his indifference to increasing disability. Nothing seemed to impair his enjoyment of life. His enjoyment was infectious He loved to have company and he was far more sociable than he had been before 1969 when he could seem austere and formidable. His friends loved to be with him. He was working writing, speaking and travelling, supported by his loving wife, making little of his difficulties. 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.

Sir Peter Medawar, is one of the brightest stars, in the galaxy of Scientific luminaries of the 20th century, combining almost chemically as he did indomitable courage, extraordinary scientific talent, lyrical prose, and eloquent speech.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here