While Peter was still in grade school, the family moved back to England
and lived in an apartment in suburban London. Soon thereafter,
his mother and father returned to Rio and left Peter and his
brother in an English
boarding school. Many people think of English boarding schools
as an elite educational experience, preparing students for premier
English colleges such as Oxford or Cambridge. In Peter Medawar's day, however, many such boarding schools had low
standards, poorly qualified teachers, and run-down facilities.
The students came from average families, not wealth. Such was
the case with Peter and his boarding school.
favorite teacher was a middle-aged, bald, language teacher who
loved drinking his ale and was an avid football (soccer) fan.
Reading and writing quickly became major activities for Peter.
In later years, Peter became famous for the quality of his writing,
not only in his scientific papers, but also in his essays on a variety of
When he was thirteen, Peter's
mother thought he should attend a "public" boarding
school. Such schools in England were designed to train boys for
leadership in the home civil service or for colonial administration
and the foreign service. Peter hated his experience at the public
boarding school. The school building itself had a prison-block
design. The people were snobbish. Every boy had to take a cold
bath every morning, even on the coldest days. The bathrooms were
scrawled with dirty graffiti. Whippings were common. A great deal
of authority was given to the boys themselves, who abused the
privilege by bullying the boys with lesser authority. In addition
to the usual abuse, Peter endured further harassment because his
Middle Eastern facial features led others to assume that he was
Peter was also disappointed
because of his lack of athletic skills. If a boy did not have
the talent to do well in sports, he was banished from sports and
ridiculed around school. Just as today, a lot of emphasis was
put on students' athletic talents when it came to winning approval
Peter did encounter a teacher
he admired--a biology teacher who inspired two other boys at the
school to become university professors. He was a crude and aggressive
man who was hired, Peter thought, to discredit science so that
students would become more adept in other subjects which were
deemed more relevant for leadership and government service.
So why did Peter, and the
other boys too, like this man? Maybe it was because he did not
put on airs, as did so many other teachers. Peter never figured
out why he and the other students were inspired by this teacher.
In any case, Peter quickly realized that he wanted to study biology
Peter Medawar applied for
a scholarship to Oxford, but failed. He did, however, score well
enough on the tests to be admitted as a "commoner,"
which is what the British call the regular undergraduate student.
A new and much more civilized world opened for Peter at Oxford.
At Oxford, students are grouped and housed as social units called
"colleges." His college was Magdalen. Peter did not
fit in well with many of those in Magdalen, but he did get along
well with students who shared his interests in music and biology.
The administrators of Magdalen College did not recruit students
for their scholarship, but rather they wanted "regular guys"
who would bring distinction to the college through sports and
leadership activities. Thus, Peter encountered far too many of
the same types of social snobs that he had lived with at boarding
school. Despite the situation, Peter loved Oxford, for it was
full of stimulating people of substance and high achievement.
In those days, Oxford had
a 1:1 student teacher ratio. Teaching was administered through
one on one tutoring. Students
met their tutor once each week, while studying, completing lab
and learning exercises, and writing papers between sessions. The
tutor did not "lecture," nor provide factual information.
The tutor's role was to guide students to the right books and
papers, to set standards, to inspire a love for the subject,
and to judge the adequacy of student achievement. Tutors had to
be generalists in their subjects. Biology students, for example,
did not go to a physiologist to learn physiology, an anatomist
to learn anatomy, or a geneticist to learn genetics, etc. One
tutor guided the learning in all aspects and specialties. Peter
was lucky enough to have as one of his tutors, John Young, a famous
neurobiologist, who helped him appreciate the breadth and inter-relatedness
of all biology. Shortly after graduation, Peter himself became
a tutor and found it to be "about the hardest work"
he'd ever done.
As much as Peter generally enjoyed his tutoring experiences, he was
quick to point out the problems. He summarized the problems as
follows: "Some tutors are dull in themselves and a cause
of dullness in others.... some tutors were lazy and self-indulgent."
Why It Matters |
How We Find Out |
What We Know |
Common Hazards |
Self-Study Game |
Teachers Pages |
Peer Curriculum |
Organ Systems Home Page |
Copyright © 2001-2003
Web Site Privacy Statement