Lady Medawar

Lady Medawar

Lady Medawar, who has died aged 92, was an author, a former chairman of the Family Planning Association (FPA) and the widow of Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel laureate for medicine, and director of the National Institute for Medical Research.

The daughter of a Cambridge doctor and a half-American mother, she was born Jean Shinglewood Taylor on February 7 1913 and educated at Benenden School in Kent and Somerville College, Oxford, to which she won a scholarship to read Zoology. It was there that she first encountered her future husband, who later described her as “the most beautiful woman student in Oxford”.

But it was Jean Taylor who first accosted Medawar, the tall, dark and prodigiously talented young scientist whom she thought looked “mildly diabolical”. Knowing that he had a knowledge of philosophy, she shyly asked him – whispering across a crowded lecture theatre – what “heuristic” meant.

He explained that the word came from the Greek heureka, meaning “I have it” and offered to give Jean extra philosophy tutorials on “mechanism, vitalism and other quasi-philosophic aspects of biology”, starting her off on what she described as “some elevated and beautiful passages from Nietzsche”.

In 1932, before the Nazis came to power, Jean Taylor spent a holiday in the Black Forest and became aware of the menace of Nazism, noticing the swastika flags flying defiantly, despite the fact that they were legally forbidden. At Oxford both she and Peter Medawar joined the Labour Party in its opposition to appeasement, and together they did much to help the mainly Jewish German scientists who came to Britain as refugees in the years before the Second World War.

They were married in 1937, despite objections from Jean Taylor’s family: “What will you do if you have black babies?” her mother asked her (a reference to the fact that Medawar’s father was a Lebanese Maronite Christian). An aunt, noting that Medawar had “no background, no money” even went so far as to disinherit her.

Jean Medawar spent the next 20 years bringing up their four children and supporting her husband’s career at Oxford, Birmingham University and as director of the National Institute for Medical Research. “She relieved me all our married life,” he wrote in his autobiography, Memoir of a Thinking Radish (1986), “of duties and chores that might hinder the prosecution of scientific research.” Jean was a brilliant cook and a generous hostess, and the Medawars became the centre of an extensive circle of leading intellectual, scientific and musical minds.

Medawar was awarded the Nobel Prize (jointly with Sir MacFarlane Burnet) in 1960 for his work on tissue grafting, which is basic to organ transplants. His wife, meanwhile, had begun working with the FPA, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, the Marriage Guidance Council and also with young offenders at Holloway Prison near their home at Hampstead, north London.

In 1967 she became the second chairman of the FPA after the death of Margaret Pyke, and the following year she co-founded the Margaret Pyke Centre for Study and Training in Family Planning (officially opened by Prince Philip in 1969) and the Margaret Pyke Memorial Trust. When the centre invited the prince back to its reopening in 1995 he was said to have remarked: “It is difficult to refuse an invitation from Jean Medawar.”

Her interest in conservation and sustainable development led, in 1973, to the organisation of discussion classes for schoolchildren on man and the environment. Indeed, she was ahead of her time in her understanding of the importance of environmental issues, and her work with the FPA was much-influenced by her concern for population stabilisation in Third World countries. She also published numerous articles on women and the environment.

In 1969 her husband, aged only 54, suffered a catastrophic stroke which left him handicapped for the rest of his life, although he remained mentally active. For the next 18 years, until his death in 1987, she fought devotedly to ensure that he had the very best medical treatment available and that he was able to continue writing.

She collaborated with him on several publications, including The Life Sciences (1977) and Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Zoology (1984). She also provided him with assistance on his popular publication, Advice To A Young Scientist (1979).

In 2000 Jean Medawar published (with David Pyke) Hitler’s Gift; Scientists who fled Nazi Germany, which told the story of how some of the best-known physicists, mathematicians, biologists and chemists fled Nazi Germany to Britain and America, and went on to enrich scientific progress in their adopted countries.

A talented linguist, Jean Medawar spoke French and German, as well as a smattering of Swedish, Italian and Russian.

She is survived by her two sons and two daughters.

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