Professor Robert Winston

March 2, 2016

Professor Robert Winston delivered the inaugural Medawar Lecture on Tuesday 1st March, marking the 101st year since Nobel Laureate, Peter Medawar's (B2 1928-32) birth.

Winston was a fitting choice, given the biological foundations both of his own and Medawar's work. Winston referred to Medawar several times during the evening, calling him as ‘one of the greats??™. The title for the Professor's lecture was ‘Modifying Humans: where does genetics stop?' The lecture was delivered to a packed Memorial Hall audience drawn by the intriguing title and, no doubt, the professor's fame and reputation.

Although the title suggested a need for an understanding of genetics and related science, Professor Winston made the theory accessible to all. Indeed, his presentation mirrored that which he adopts in all of his, now famous, television work. He opened with a lesson in Art History which underlined historical perceptions of people born with disability as depicted in famous works of art. He showed how artists could portray disabled people as both aligned with the underworld on the one hand, subhuman, but also in a confident and bold light. This was seen in Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas, which hangs in The Prado Museum in Madrid. He spoke about Las Meninas in a different way from the previous paintings which did not show disabled people in a good light. Las Meninas was unique because it depicts the central dwarf character in a very confident and bold light, and not a negative light. Our understanding of genetic disability has come a long way and the Professor outlined how we now have the knowledge and technology to alter the genetics of our offspring even before they are born – for better or for worse.

He continued by considering music, and whether genetics had a part to play in musical genius, which he dismissed fairly quickly, perhaps with the exception being JS Bach's family. Professor Winston sometimes chose to speak over a classical sound track while it played in the background. All the while he ‘thought aloud??™. This unusual delivery proved to be both highly effective and thought provoking. His response to his rhetorical question, ‘Why do you think I've chosen to play music tonight?' was ‘because of the uncertainty'. He maintained that although there may always be a chorus, there may also be an off-beat piano riff that one wouldn't have predicted within the score. This was the crux of his stance on the lecture's title; the fact that some of science may change drastically, and will thus be unforeseeable. How could we be sure that our dabbling in genetics would not have unforeseen, and perhaps undesirable, consequences?

Towards the end of the lecture, Professor Winston touched on his own field of scientific research: fertility treatment. He and his team performed the first fallopian tube transplant, but this radical technology was soon superseded by his work in the field of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Professor Winston also voiced his concerns about the cost of modern day IVF treatment, saying that it should cost couples a fraction of the often extortionate prices charged by some fertility clinics.

Following the talk, Professor Winston kindly held a book signing, which of course encouraged a huge rush onto the stage of the Memorial Hall. He gave freely of his time and many enjoyed conversations with before the end of the evening. This lecture was definitely one to remember, as it is not very often that we are fortunate enough to be able to hear such a scientific household name talk about his field of specialism. We would like to offer our sincere thanks to Professor Winston for visiting the College and for giving such a stimulating and inspiring lecture.

Kaj Larsson (U6 B1)

Professor Robert Winston
Professor Robert Winston
Professor Robert Winston
Professor Robert Winston
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