Memoir of a Thinking Radish

Peter Medawar uses his autobiography to try to undermine some prominent stereotypes about scientists. One of the central themes he seeks to convey in this volume is that scientists are not indifferent to, or unaware of, the world of the humanities. If there is a chasm separating the culture of science from that of the humanities, it is not clearly discernible in Medawar’s life. He takes pains to draw attention to his intense interest in literature and music, especially Richard Wagner’s operas. Indeed, one of the striking characteristics of Medawar’s writing is his ability to draw upon literary allusions to illustrate salient points about his life and thought. The title of this volume is a case in point. Believing that the lives of scientists often make unexciting reading, Medawar selected a title which was intended to convey to the reader that this book is not merely the autobiography of a scientist but of a literate person as well, familiar with the main traditions of Western thought and culture. The phrase “thinking radish” in his title is intended to link two contrasting conceptions of man’s nature: Blaise Pascal’s notion of man as a thinking reed and Falstaff’s description (in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV) of man as a forked radish.

Another prominent theme in this work is the importance of snobbery in Great Britain and the destructive effect this has on social life in that country. Although he eventually became a distinguished member of the British Establishment, Medawar indicates that he has always been conscious of being an outsider and that he has frequently been the victim of snobbish behavior. He attributes his sense of being different to the fact that he is only half British. His father, Nicholas Medawar, was a Lebanese merchant who married an upper-class British woman, Edith Dowling. They were living in Brazil when Medawar was born in 1915, and he spent his childhood in Rio de Janeiro. He was educated in Great Britain, however, first at a preparatory school, then at Marlborough College, a prestigious public school catering almost exclusively to upper-class youth. Medawar’s dislike of Marlborough is so intense that even fifty years afterward he describes it as a barbaric institution founded “upon the twin pillars of sex and sadism.” The staff and students at the school were virulently anti-Semitic and mistakenly accused Medawar of being Jewish. Since they were also determinedly hostile to those racially different from themselves, they were not mollified by Medawar’s insistence that if he seemed unlike them, it was because he was part Arab.

Medawar’s formative years were spent at Oxford University, first as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, and then, apart from a brief interlude at Saint John’s College, as a Fellow of Magdalen from 1938 to 1947. He describes his fellow students at Magdalen as young snobs who were typically insecure about their generally limited intellectual abilities and who worried excessively about whether the people around them were truly gentlemen. When Medawar received an award for academic distinction, the other students sought to demean his achievement by suggesting that he must have worked very hard for it.

Medawar is very frank about the limitations of the scientific training he received at Oxford: He insists that with one exception nothing he learned in his zoology classes was of any value in the research which he pursued after he was graduated. Yet despite his reservations about Oxford, he was singled out by his examiners as someone with great potential; after receiving a first-class honors degree, Medawar was awarded a scholarship which enabled him to live comfortably while a Fellow of Magdalen. He was, however, required to tutor undergraduate students, and he found this, when done in combination with his scientific research, to be so demanding that when the chance arose for him to move to another institution with a lighter teaching load he welcomed the opportunity.

Although he is highly critical of British snobbery, which often valued birth and personal connections over merit, Medawar’s appointment as Mason Professor of Zoology at the University of Birmingham in the autumn of 1947 owed much to the personal ties that he had formed in the scientific community. An Oxford friend of his, Solly Zuckerman, had been appointed to the chair of anatomy at the University of Birmingham, and almost immediately he began to seek a position at the university for Medawar. The only appropriate position was that of professor of zoology; this, however, was occupied by Lancelot Hogben, a well-known pioneer in the field of experimental biology. Undaunted by this apparently insuperable roadblock, Zuckerman proceeded to secure the establishment of a new professorship in the university’s medical school, persuaded Hogben to accept it, and then convinced the university faculty that Medawar was the most suitable candidate for the newly vacant chair in zoology. It would appear that Hogben was dimly aware that some maneuvering had taken place, for he wrote to Medawar shortly after the latter’s arrival in Birmingham, observing that Medawar’s appointment had apparently been made six months before Hogben had indicated his intention of resigning.

While Oxford University placed special emphasis on traditional humanities programs, the University of Birmingham excelled in the physical sciences and engineering. Since the latter were viewed as inferior in status to the former, Medawar had several opportunities to observe the effect of snobbery in academia. One striking example occurred when an Oxford University professor, who was chairman of the University Grants Committee, visited the University of Birmingham to review the...

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