Obituary: Dr Calum Brechin Macfarlane, industrial pharmacist
BORN: 1937, in Dundee. Died: 1 August, 2012, in Linlithgow, aged 75
Calum Macfarlane was for the greater part of his career an industrial pharmacist. The pharmacy profession is much more diverse than is obvious to those who only encounter their local pharmacy.
Those pharmacists who work in the pharmaceutical industry, while not the most visible members of the profession, rarely in the public eye, play a crucial role in ensuring that we have medicines, both new drugs or the means of administering them by tablet, aerosol, injection or other forms.
They, of course, also ensure that medicines are manufactured to the highest and consistent standards.
There are not many pharmacists who are both Scottish and can pursue their métier largely in their homeland. Calum Brechin Macfarlane, a Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, was one such, latterly as Senior vice-president at the Scottish laboratories of Syntex, a Palo Alto (US) based company.
He was born in Dundee in 1937, the son of a community pharmacist, Charles Macfarlane, one-time member of the Pharmaceutical Society’s Council. Educated at Dundee High School, before embarking on his degree – a route common at the time – he spent two years gaining experience in community pharmacy practice.
In 1956 he began his higher education at the Royal College of Science and Technology and Glasgow University, graduating in 1960 with an honours Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacy.
Another Scottish pharmacist, the late Sir David Jack, discoverer of salbutamol (Ventolin) and many other successful drugs, was a graduate of the same school, albeit many years before.
Deciding to pursue a PhD rather than join his father’s practice, Calum conducted with Professor Peter Elworthy.
His research dealt not with drugs but with one type of “hidden” ingredients of medicines, namely surfactants, studying their synthesis and physicochemical properties.
This work was published in journals such as the Journal of the Chemical Society, Kolloid Zeitshrift and the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology. Many drugs are so poorly soluble that they cannot be readily formulated as injections or other dose forms.
Surfactants (detergents) are molecules which can increase the solubility of such drugs; some can form nanoscopic systems for delivering drugs to specific organs; others are now used in neonatal respiratory distress syndrome to replace deficient natural surfactant which normally facilitates lung expansion and contraction.
It was this connection between physical chemistry and pharmacology that he enjoyed most when he joined Syntex and which aided the design of molecules with better uptake and targeting characteristics.
By 1962, I joined that small but very active and growing group in the basement of the Royal College in George Street, Glasgow.
By then, Calum was an assistant lecturer in the department of pharmacy at the Royal College, headed by Professor John Stenlake, discoverer of atracurium, a neuromuscular blocking agent.
During 1964-65, as the Royal College metamorphosed into the University of Strathclyde, he was seconded to the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Ife in Nigeria and he and his wife Mary, just married, spent a year in an academic environment quite different from that in the UK, preparing all the solutions for laboratory classes himself, as he often reminded his well-supported academic colleagues.
In 1968 he, Elworthy and I collaborated in writing Solubilization by Surface Active Agents, a book which has since been cited more than 400 times in the literature, the latest being this year, 44 years after its publication.
Industry beckoned. He left Strathclyde in 1970 to became manager of pharmaceutical development at the Lilly Research Laboratories in Surrey.
There he was mainly involved in pharmaceutical technology but in 1976 the opportunity arose to work on a broader scale for another international pharmaceutical company Syntex Research at the Heriot Watt University Campus in Edinburgh.
The Syntex company was founded in 1944 to produce steroids from yams; this led to the development of the first oral contraceptive molecules. By the time Macfarlane joined the company it had expanded its therapeutic interests.
He oversaw the growth of that Scottish enterprise, finally achieving a large new facility on the campus, before Syntex was bought by Roche, and Scotland sadly lost this pharmaceutical research base.
From 1981 to 1995 he was European Director of Research and Development with scientific and management responsibility for teams of scientists based at the Syntex Research Centres both in Edinburgh and Paris.
The main thrust of the research was to develop drugs and medicines to alleviate the health problems of an ageing population.
In 1991 he was given additional responsibility for the company’s Global Pharmaceutical Development groups based in Palo Alto in California.
During this long period he kept his links with academia by holding visiting professorships at Heriot Watt and Strathclyde Universities and a teaching appointment at Glasgow University.
With his support Syntex funded a Strathclyde PhD studentship during this time which allowed research into the uptake of nanoparticles by the gut, work that proved important in understanding the fate of the products of nanotechnology in the body. Today this is an ongoing area of research.
Since retiring from Syntex in 1995 Calum kept busy with industrial consultancies, also in patent defence work and academic research projects. In one case, lawyers involved required the team to reproduce a complex pharmaceutical product; he was in his element fabricating equipment where necessary, sleeves of his white coat rolled up and enjoying every moment of being “back in the lab” after so many years.
This is how many will remember him. The experiments led perhaps unusually to a scientific paper three years ago in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics.
Away from the laboratory, the board room or the flights to and from Palo Alto, he loved the outdoors. He inherited from his father a great love of observing nature: he recalled peering into a golden eagle’s nest as a young child and then finding a wren’s nest in the valleys below. Keen all his life on fishing, he fly fished in many countries, but his favourites were undoubtedly brown trout in New Zealand and bone fish off Kiribati, Christmas Island.
Almost five years ago, looking for a gentler sport than those of his youth, he prevailed upon Mary to let him take up her sport of curling. As much as he loved the sport, he wished that he had fully researched the impact of “sweeping” on the more elderly human body before being so rash.
He died on 1 August, 2012, at home after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Mary, daughter Gaele, son Angus, daughter-in-law Serena and two grandchildren.
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