Jean Medawar

Writer and family-planning campaigner
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jean Shinglewood Taylor, family-planning campaigner and writer: born London 7 February 1913; Joint Editor, Family Planning 1959-76; Chair, Family Planning Association 1966-70; Director, Margaret Pyke Memorial Trust 1976-2005; married 1937 Peter Medawar (Kt 1965, died 1987; two sons, two daughters); died London 3 May 2005.

Jean Medawar was perhaps best known as the wife and lifelong companion of Sir Peter Medawar, the celebrated transplantation immunologist and Nobel laureate who died in 1987. She was, however, a remarkable woman in her own right, the author of a number of books, and a significant figure in the modern family- planning movement.

She was born Jean Shinglewood Taylor in 1913, the daughter of a Cambridge doctor and an American mother from St Louis, Missouri. Educated in Cambridge - and at Benenden School, in Kent - she chose to study Zoology at Oxford, winning a scholarship to Somerville College. At Oxford she met and fell in love with a fellow student, Peter Medawar. They married in 1937, despite strenuous objections from members of her family (one aunt went so far as to disinherit her), and they made a fine couple: Jean was a striking beauty and Peter was very tall, handsome and an intellectual heavyweight.

After leaving Birmingham in 1951, when Peter was appointed Jodrell Professor of Zoology at University College London, the Medawars and their four children lived in Lawn House, Hampstead, where they kept open house and became well known for their generous hospitality to friends and lame ducks alike. Jean was an excellent cook and a charming hostess and their dinner parties, usually made up of high-flying scientific, intellectual and musical friends, were greatly valued. It was many years later, after Peter's severe stroke in 1969, that they moved down the hill to Downshire Hill, where, thanks to Jean's determination, life continued much in the same way.

It was an unconventional but very happy marriage and Jean's devotion to her husband, when life became extremely difficult after 1969, was exemplary and touching to witness. She fought for him like a lion to ensure that justice was done to him by his employer, the Medical Research Council (where he had been appointed Director in 1962), that he received the best possible medical treatment, and that he was able to continue his very productive book writing. Indeed, two books were published jointly, The Life Sciences (1979) and Aristotle to Zoos: a philosophic dictionary of biology (1983), and Peter's autobiography, Memoir of a Thinking Radish (1986), written towards the end of his life, was corrected and proof-read by his wife.

Jean Medawar devoted much energy to the cause of family planning. In 1954, she met Margaret Pyke, Chair of the Family Planning Association, and became drawn into the work of the organisation. Before long she became a member of its executive, and later its second chair. At Pyke's suggestion, Medawar became joint editor with Margaret's son Dr David Pyke (later Registrar of the Royal College of Physicians) of the association's quarterly journal, Family Planning. Medawar's mastery of foreign languages - she spoke French and German fluently - proved to be invaluable at international meetings.

When Margaret Pyke died in 1966, Medawar and David Pyke were instrumental in setting up the Margaret Pyke Memorial Trust to promote education and research in matters of sexual health; the Margaret Pyke Centre opened in the London headquarters of the Family Planning Association in 1969. Run and funded by the NHS since 1976, the centre is now one of the biggest contraception clinics in the world, with its research and training department supported by the trust. Medawar was appointed Director of the Margaret Pyke Memorial Trust in 1976, and remained active in the post until the mid 1990s.

She was thus immensely successful in reconciling a productive life in the voluntary sector with bringing up a family and giving her husband the kind of support that enabled him to avoid most domestic chores and to focus his energies on scientific research and academic responsibilities.

Jean Medawar published two books in addition to those co-authored with her husband. A Very Decided Preference: a life with Peter Medawar (1990), was a very personal account of her marriage and especially the calamitous but brave years after his first severe stroke.

Hitler's Gift: scientists who fled Nazi Germany (2000) was written jointly with David Pyke. In this historically valuable book they described how a select group of distinguished Jewish scientists and physicians from Germany and Austria, dismissed from their academic posts by the Nazis, were helped to come to this country and to establish themselves in British institutions. Many of them were or later became Nobel laureates, and Medawar and Pyke made a convincing case for the notion that Hitler's self-inflicted loss was Britain's great gain.

Leslie Baruch Brent

Comments