Thursday, October 13, 2011

The ‘Spare-part biologist’: Sir Peter Medawar

"He was a big man. That was the first thing that struck you as he strode into the room. A big man - tall and vibrant with life. His sheer presence communicated a sense of power: not political power, not domination, but physical power, above all intellectual power... It was difficult not to be awe-stricken in the company of Peter Medawar" (1)

Such descriptions of Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel-Prize winning zoologist whose archive has just been digitised, make browsing through his personal papers somehow more tangible. Not all biologists get to appear in Vogue as Medawar did in 1971 (2).

It is a tragedy that Medawar was plagued by persistent strokes later on in life. First struck down dramatically mid-speech in Exeter cathedral in 1969, he persevered through ever disabling health issues to continue to write seven books until his death in 1987. (3)

Some of the most poignant material from Medawar’s papers is those letters that relate to his strokes: correspondence from 1970 includes a series of self-portrait drawings illustrating his recovery from his seizure: one image is marked 'PBM body image 9 July 1970, Pablo Medawar pixit' with spiky fingers and elongated ears.

Other drawings dated ‘May 16’ shows him with enlarged hands and feet and another dated ‘May 26’ with a third leg (possibly a crutch) and just one overgrown ear like protrusion from his head.

Such drawings were part of his traumatic recovery process as explained in his autobiographical work Memoir of a thinking radish (p.157, Oxford University Press, 1986) and revealed, to Medawar at least, an ‘eye defect’ brought on by the stroke. His confidence in his recovery never abated it seems – despite his evident disability, it is a relief to read a note from '9 May' stating repeatedly 'I am feeling better' (4)

The archive will be available to view from 2012. Further details of the digitisation programme can be obtained from the Wellcome Library digitisation project pages.

1. Dipak Nandy, p.1 of an article for p.1 The Runnymede Trust, 1988, file ref: PP/PBM/F.58

2. The article features a shot of him musing at a desk with a cat out of focus in the front, File ref: PP/PBM/D55

A full listing of all books authored by Medawar held in the Wellcome Library.

4. File ref:


- Photo of Medawar was apparently intended for use in article by Medawar in "Lying Truths" according to pencil inscription on verso ("Lying truths : a critical scrutiny of current beliefs and conventions, Ronald Duncan and Miranda Weston-Smith, Pergamon Press, 1979.

- Self-portrait drawings are dated 1970 from file ref:

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