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A look back at Peter Medawar

Peter Medawar with colleagues at the NIMR

Peter Medawar with colleagues at the NIMR

Peter Medawar, Nobel Laureate and Director of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in the 1960s, was born 100 years ago on 28 February. Here Frank Norman, Head of Library Services at the NIMR, looks back on how his research into skin grafts led to modern organ transplants, and his significant role in encouraging and supporting young scientists.

It was in 1940 that transplantation sparked the interest of the young Peter Medawar. While working as a researcher at the University of Oxford, an RAF plane crashed near to his home and one of the airmen suffered severe burns.

Through his experience of trying to help the airman, Medawar became interested in treating burn victims with skin grafts – a risky and often unsuccessful intervention. He prepared a review of the literature, Notes on the problem of skin homografts, which he sent to the War Wounds Committee of the MRC.

The MRC then commissioned him to see if treatment of burns could be improved, and the problems of skin graft rejection solved. Working with the surgeon Thomas Gibson at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, he showed that patients rejected skin grafts from donors within two weeks, but when a second graft from the same donor was made, it was rejected much more quickly. Peter recognised that this pattern was characteristic of an immune response and set out to investigate it more fully.

In a 1953 Nature paper Medawar, together with Rupert Billingham and Leslie Brent, described the phenomenon of immune tolerance in detail. The immune system is not pre-programmed to distinguish between self and non-self but learns to do so as a result of exposure to self-molecules during early development.

Largely through his work, a new branch of science was created – the immunology of transplantation. This made possible enormous advances in medicine involving organ transplants and a profound understanding of immune rejection. He shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1960 with Frank Macfarlane Burnet for this work.

A gifted communicator

Peter was not just a brilliant scientist but also a philosopher and a gifted science communicator. In his numerous lectures, including the 1959 Reith Lectures, and essays he applied sceptical rationalism, using logic as his weapon.

In his 1979 book Advice to a Young Scientist he said he set out “to write the kind of book I myself should have liked to have read when I began research”. Taking the part of a benevolent counsellor, he delivers wry observations on how to choose a research topic, how to get along with collaborators, how to present a scientific paper, the scientific process and advice on dealing with older scientists and administrators. Isaac Asimov praised the book as “a charming and irresistible lure into science”.

An encouraging leader

Peter left an indelible mark on the NIMR, creating an exciting environment for biomedical research at Mill Hill. Liz Simpson wrote that “this was a golden time, with immunologists, cell biologists, biochemists, parasitologists and microbiologists ebbing and flowing into each other’s labs, and meeting over coffee, lunch and at the bar. Peter Medawar was always there, in the background, encouraging and supporting us all”.

He described NIMR when he arrived as “a kind of scientific barracks. There was no place for scientific workers to sit over a glass of ale and discuss their ideas”. He insisted that a bar should be included as an essential part of the restaurant facilities, to be a place where the scientists could break from lab work at the end of the day for a discussion. Staff at the institute today regularly give thanks to Peter Medawar for this innovation!

Born on 28 February 1915 Medawar was a student and then a lecturer at Oxford University. After professorships at Birmingham and then UCL, he was appointed as Director of the MRC NIMR in 1962. A stroke in 1969 left him partially paralysed and forced him to step down as Director in 1972.

He moved to the MRC Clinical Research Centre in Harrow, where he remained until 1986. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949 and received many other honours throughout his career. He died on 2 October 1987.

Frank Norman

Find out more about Peter Medawar in a NIMR Mill Hill essay, and his papers at the Wellcome Library.

Read about recent transplantation research that builds on the legacy of Medawar’s work on our website.

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