Lady Jean Medawar

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 09 June 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1392

A family planning pioneer

Jean Medawar was the wife of Sir Peter Medawar, the distinguished UK transplant immunologist and Nobel laureate. She spent her life supporting her husband's career and working hard for causes she cared about and believed in—the global environment, population control, and family planning.

She was one of a redoubtable group of women who had to combat the most extraordinarily hostile attitudes in the early days of family planning. She was fond of quoting a letter published in the Lancet in 1930, when she was 17, saying that the subject “was something that no decent man would handle with a pair of tongs.”

In 1954, when she was 31, she met Margaret Pyke, chairwoman of the Family Planning Association, and this started her considerable contribution to the movement. She became a member of the executive in 1960, and was chairwoman from 1968 to 1970. For two decades, from 1957 to 1976, she was joint editor of Family Planning (now Family Planning Today). Her co-editor was Margaret Pyke's son, David Pyke, later registrar of the Royal College of Physicians.

She was also an active member of the Family Planning Association's central London branch and was on many committees of the association and allied organisations.

When Margaret Pyke died in 1966, Jean and David Pyke set up the Margaret Pyke Memorial Trust, which promoted education and research in matters of sexual health and population control. The Margaret Pyke Centre was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in November 1969. The duke is reported once to have said, “It is difficult to refuse an invitation from Jean Medawar.”

She was beautiful, charming, magnetic, moderate, and, on committees, non-combative. She spoke fluent French and German, and some Swedish, Italian, and Russian, which greatly increased her effectiveness at international conferences.

Jean Medawar's father was a doctor in Cambridge, her mother an American from St Louis, Missouri. Jean Taylor, as she then was, was educated in Cambridge and at Benenden School, Kent, from where she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, to study zoology. Here she met Peter Medawar. He described her as “the most beautiful woman in Oxford”; she described his looks as “mildly diabolical.” Their first exchange was during a lecture, when she asked him in a whisper what heuristic meant. He explained that it came from the Greek word heureka, meaning I have found it, and offered her tutorials on “mechanism, vitalism, and other quasi-philosophical aspects of biology.” He went on to give her tutorials in philosophy.

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She took her BSc in 1935 and did some work on the origin and development of lymphocytes under Howard Florey, later Lord Florey, who developed penicillin.

In 1932 she spent a holiday in the Black Forest. The Nazi party was gaining strength in Germany and she saw swastika flags flying, even though they were illegal. At Oxford she and Peter joined the Labour Party, which opposed appeasement, and they did what they could to help refugee German scientists who came to Britain in the years preceding the outbreak of war.

Many years later, in 2000, with David Pyke, she published Hitler's Gift (review BMJ 2001;322: 681), a book about scientists who fled Nazi Germany.

She married in the face of vigorous objections from her family. Because Peter was born in Brazil of a Lebanese father, her mother asked her what she would do if she had black babies, and an aunt disinherited her because Peter had “no background, and no money.”

She spent the following two decades bringing up her children while her husband's career took her to Birmingham and then, in 1951, to London.

He had a major stroke in 1969, aged only 54, which left him permanently disabled but mentally unimpaired. She made sure he got the best treatment possible and he continued researching and writing.

Her husband wrote about her in his book Memoir of a Thinking Radish (1986), “She relieved me all our married life of the chores that might hinder the prosecution of scientific research.” After his death in 1987 she returned the compliment in another book, A Very Decided Preference: Life with Peter Medawar (1990).

She and Peter were great hosts, and their Hampstead home was open house to writers, artists, and intellectuals. She outlived Peter by 18 years and continued to take an active part in the Margaret Pyke trust until the mid-1990s.

She leaves two sons and two daughters.

Jean Shinglewood Medawar (née Taylor), former chairwoman Family Planning Association, editor Family Planning, and trustee Margaret Pyke Memorial Trust (b 1913), d 3 May 2005.

[Caroline Richmond]