DO NOT TROUBLE yourself long with the origin of the title of Sir Peter Medawar's autobiography, for its roots are as arcane as they seem. The title, however, is the final arcanity of this marvelous volume of humanity, history and wit that documents the life and ruminations of the dean of British science and letters. Medawar has written elsewhere that "the lives of scientists, taken as Lives, almost always make dull reading" and has set out here, claiming no "distinction more extravagant than membership in the human race," to disprove his own axiom. He succeeds.
Born in 1915 of a Lebanese father and an English mother, Medawar spent much of his youth in Rio de Janeiro where his father worked as a representative of a British company. He returned to England for schooling at Marlborough and Oxford, both of which left strong but contrary marks on his intellect. He thrived on the richness of the mind and the rigor of the tutorial system he found at the latter while the Philistine prejudices and manners he encountered at the former led him to conclude that public schools (British private secondary schools) "were founded upon the twin pillars of sex and sadism as, by all accounts, were the training schools for the Nazi SS." Indeed, his school experiences coupled with his instinctive sense of the iconoclastic made of him a life-long critic of vanity and puffery -- citing, as he does, "the generally destructive effect upon English social life and our position in the world caused by the infirmity of manners I call 'snobismus' -- a syndrome that more aptly than any other deserves to be called the 'English disease'."
Medawar's life as a scientist began at Oxford where he studied zoology in the pre-war period that was still dominated by the anatomists and paleontologists. Experimental biology was in its infancy and immunology was a thing of the future. During the war, Medawar witnessed the crash of a plane near Oxford and became involved in the clinical efforts to save the severely burned pilot. Skin grafting was a rudimentary science at the time and extremely limited -- as were all transplants -- by the body's unerring tendency to reject any tissue that was not its own. For the next two decades at Oxford and subsequently at Birmingham and at University College, London, Medawar pursued studies that would shed light on the bodily factors that described and determined the immune response. In 1953, he published findings demonstrating that the immune response of one laboratory animal to tissues of another could be suppressed by exposing the first to the cells of the second animal while the first was still an embryo.
Although this finding in itself did not usher in the age of transplant surgery, it did a great deal to better the understanding of the body's immune system, and it gave promise that natural immunity could be manipulated such that transplants from one individual to another could be accomplished. For this work, Medawar was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.
Since 1962, Medawar has been associated with Britain's National Institute for Medical Research -- the nation's NIH -- first as its director and more recently as a clinical investigator again pursuing his love of the laboratory. In 1969, at the height of his prowess as a statesman of science and while, as he puts it, "pursuing my career with unobtrusive lunacy," Medawar was felled by a stroke. The resulting physical compromises limited his hands-on laboratory abilities but in no way curtailed his active participation in the mainstream of scientific thought.
In recent years he has devoted increasing amounts of his time to writing about science in terms that are both erudite and accessible. Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology published in 1983 in partnership with his wife Jean is, perhaps, his most entertaining volume consisting, as it does, of several hundred short essays on topics including anticholinesterases, creationism and sweating whereas The Limits of Science (1984) will surely stand as one of the important treatises on the philosophy of science written this century.
MEDAWAR'S CAREER and his memoir span the enormous terrain that science has captured during the middle years of this century. He has labored as a biologist while the focus of the profession has moved from the level of the organ -- the paleontologist describing bones -- to the level of the cell and now to the inner workings of the molecule, greater changes than have taken place in the entire previous history of biology. As a scientist, he has contributed generously to these advances and as a writer he has chronicled them, a feat made the more difficult and the more important by the advancing complexity of the concepts and the vocabulary that must now be conveyed if the lay reader is to have any possibility of understanding scientific developments.
Memoir of a Thinking Radish will serve as a historical document gracefully reconstructing the mid-century events that were milestones in the explosive developments that put immunology on the map and made it central to many of the advances in modern medicine. More than that, though, it is a modest, candid and humorous book that leaves the reader sorely disappointed not to have known the author. In due course, Medawar touches on the thrills of conducting great music in front of one's mirror, allegations about the genital anatomy of a colleague, getting drunk, coping with illness, religious pomposity and his desire to see how his grandchildren turn out. He concludes his volume with the surmise that when he dies he will "be thinking that in spite of its vicissitudes my life has by no means been without its risible aspects."
Although Medawar achieved global prominence as a scientist, it is a commentary on the nature of science as well as a minor irony that his literary achievements are likely to be his most enduring ones. Science builds like a coral reef and, while acquired immunologic tolerance and related findings are important foundations, they have long since been overlayed by further discoveries. In contrast, an inciteful aphorism, a well polished essay or a splendid autobiography such as Memoir of a Thinking Radish will stand on its own as a living legacy for many years to come.