Peter Medawar solves rejection

Peter Medawar, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1960, once described viruses as “a piece of nucleic acid surrounded by bad news”.

It’s an often-repeated line, sometimes rendered as “bad news wrapped in protein”.

Either way, it’s a snappy quote, and says much about the man who was acclaimed for his work in acquired immunological tolerance but who titled his autobiography Memoir of a Thinking Radish and whose list of quotations would make a brilliant stand-up comedy routine.

A few examples:

“Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty eyed: solemn because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare.”

“The human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it.”

“I once spoke to a human geneticist who declared that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless, so I tried calling him unintelligent. He was annoyed, and it did not appease him when I went on to ask how he came to attach such a clear meaning to the notion of lack of intelligence. We never spoke again.”

Medawar was born on 28 February 1915 near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His father was Lebanese, a naturalised British citizen, and his mother British. The family left Brazil for England at the end of World War I. 

Medawar studied at Marlborough College in Wiltshire and Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating with a first-class honours degree in zoology in 1935.

While at Oxford he became interested in biological research with medical applications, including immunology, and was awarded his PhD in 1941.

biographical published by the Nobel Prize organisation says this early research at Oxford was on “tissue culture, the regeneration of peripheral nerves and the mathematical analysis of the changes of shape of organisms that occur during this development”.

It says that during the early stages of World War II he was asked to investigate why “skin taken from one human being will not form a permanent graft on the skin of another person”. This work “enabled him to establish theorems of transplantation immunity, which formed the basis of his further work on the subject”.

Medawar continued his research and in 1960 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Australian Frank Macfarlane Burnet, “for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance”.

An article published by the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information explains how, in the ceremonial presentation of the prize, Professor Sven Gard of Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet said the principal importance of their discovery was in the field of research, and that it “opened a new chapter in the history of experimental biology”.

“Immunity is our perhaps most important defence against a hostile surrounding world,” Gard said. “By penetrating analysis of existing data and brilliant deduction, and by painstaking experimental research, you have unveiled a fundamental law governing the development and maintenance of this vital mechanism.”

In its obituary for Medawar, the Washington Post said his “work was the foundation on which others built to solve problems relating to the rejection of transplanted tissues and led to widespread success in the fields of kidney, liver and heart transplants”.

Medawar was knighted in 1965 and in 1981 received the Order of Merit. He suffered a stroke in 1969, the first of several. He died on 2 October 1987, in London.

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