Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Peter Medawar papers

Peter Medawar was one of the founders of transplantation immunology, showing for the first time that grafts between one individual and another might be possible.

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Collection overview

Peter Medawar (1915-1987) was a prominent figure in British science, a thinker and prolific writer on the philosophy of science, and a lover of music, company and conversation. His correspondence covers a very broad swathe of 20th-century concerns, extending well beyond science to politics, the arts and daily life.

Medawar stroke sketch

Self-portrait by Peter Medawar following his stroke, 1970
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The collection includes his laboratory notebooks and a partial set of papers covering his research career. According to his wife, Jean, he periodically threw out papers that he thought were no longer needed. Enough remains, however, to give an insight into his research methods, innovative thinking, and extraordinary range of scientific and philosophical interests. In addition to his Nobel Prize-winning work on immunology, he made important contributions to theoretical discussions on the evolution of ageing, which he proposed was due to the accumulation of genetic mistakes as cells reproduce throughout the life of the individual.

The records of Medawar's books on science are more complete, beginning with his 1959 Reith Lectures for the BBC, later published as 'The Future of Man', and concluding with his autobiography, 'Memoir of a Thinking Radish'. There is also a substantial quantity of research material collected by Robert Reid, who intended to write a biography of Medawar but died in 1990 before the work was complete.

Medawar wrote with vigour, style and fluency, in both his published work and his letters. The collection includes professional correspondence not only with scientific colleagues but also with some of the leading figures in 20th-century philosophy, such as A J Ayer and Karl Popper. Personal correspondence includes letters to his wife. As he wrote in his autobiography, her support over 50 years of marriage, both before and after he became incapacitated by a series of strokes, was essential to his research career.

Profile

Peter Brian Medawar was born in Rio de Janeiro, the son of a Brazilian father of Lebanese origin and an English mother. Educated in a succession of English boarding schools, he developed a lifelong contempt for the kind of English snobbism that judged him for his background. An eclectic reader with a passion for opera, he settled on biology as a career and took a degree in zoology at Oxford, where he subsequently began research into the reasons that burns patients rejected skin grafts from unrelated donors.

Cuniculi in rabbits

Watercolour rabbits
signed by Medawar's fellow scientists
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Appointed to chairs at Birmingham and then at University College London, he undertook the research on immunological tolerance that would win him the Nobel Prize in 1960. 'The Uniqueness of the Individual', published in 1956, was the first of a series of philosophical books (including 'The Art of the Soluble' and 'Advice to a Young Scientist') that made him well known beyond the circle of his scientific colleagues.

In 1962 he was appointed to direct the National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill, near London, where despite heavy administrative responsibilities he continued to work with his colleague Leslie Brent on the basis of immune rejection and tolerance. He was knighted in 1965.

In 1969, while making the Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he suffered the first of a series of strokes. Aided by his wife, Jean, whom he had met when they were undergraduates at Oxford, he continued to work, taking a new post in 1971 as head of the transplantation section at the Medical Research Council's clinical research centre in Harrow, a postion he continued to hold till shortly before his death.

Originals held by...

This material is held by the Wellcome Library where originals may be consulted.

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself…than to declare that science knows or soon will know the answers to all questions worth asking.

Peter Medawar, 'Advice to a Young Scientist', 1979

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In The Timeline

1943: Peter Medawar discovers the basis of immune rejection

Peter Medawar discovers the basis of immune rejection

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