I’m not the biggest fan of autobiography, but I’ve read a few, and even enjoyed some. But they have their dangers. I’ve just finished reading Peter Medawar’s Memoir of a Thinking Radish, and while it’s not badly written, I’m left with the impression of him as a pretty unpleasant person, and a terrible snob. The latter isn’t helped by his repeatedly pointing out the snobbery of others as an example of the worst failing in the society of his time.
It’s hard when reading a period piece to separate the individual’s failings from those commonly part of the culture. So much of the defence of Churchill (whether justified or not) depends on his being ‘a man of his time’. But Medawar was younger than my grandparents, and writing in the mid-80s. I don’t expect the most enlightened attitude towards sexuality, but for someone of his erudition to assume that every homosexual man is just waiting to assault him as soon as his guard is down is perverse, not to say egotistical.
This isn’t the first scientist who I’ve come to dislike, but it most cases it’s mediated through another source. Biographers of science obviously focus on those with the greatest achievements, but it shouldn’t be surprising or worrying when these brilliant scientists turn out to be less impressive as people. One of the examples is quoted as favourably reviewing Medawar on the back cover: Stephen Jay Gould, who from my other reading seems to be quite as petty and rude as his great rival, Dawkins (if somewhat less vocal, even before he died).
At least I can save myself the bother of reading Honest Jim, safe in the secure knowledge that James Watson can’t really come across as any worse than I already know him to be.