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Obituary: Sir James Black

Medical scientist whose work on beta-blockers has saved many thousands of lives

Born: 14 June, 1924, in Uddingston, Lanarkshire.

Died: 22 March, 2010, aged 85.

WHEN taking a look back over a person's life it is often easy to find one aspect of their personal life or career that is admirable. With Sir James Black it is difficult to find something that is not. He excelled as a physiologist and researcher, he changed the face of modern medicine with his contribution to the development of the drugs propanolol and pronethlol, he held the position of Chancellor of the University of Dundee and he has a centre of medical research named after him: the Sir James Black Centre, at the University of Dundee.

It is rare for an individual to be so influential in his field that he receives such a distinctive honour during his lifetime, unless the individual has paid for the construction of the building.

James Whyte Black was born in Uddingston in Lanarkshire but grew up in Fife. He was the son of a mining engineer, one of five children, and described his home life as "staunchly Baptist".

His early education was at Beath High School, Cowdenbeath where he proved to be a prodigious intellectual talent. He was just 15 years old when he was offered a scholarship by the University of St Andrews, where he chose to follow his brother William and apply himself to medicine. At that time all of the university's medical facilities were based at University College, Dundee. That facility eventually separated from St Andrews formally to become the University of Dundee in 1967, an institution which Black remained close to for much of his career and his later life.

He considered his move to university as his first step in to the real world, and the various prizes he received seemed to suggest that, all things considered, he wasn't half bad at it.

It was during his undergraduate studies that he met his wife-to- be, Hilary Vaughn, at the end-of- year ball in 1944 and they married upon his graduation in 1946. They remained together for 40 years until Hilary died in 1986.

After graduating, Black took up a position in the university's physiology department, before his crippling debt led to him taking on a lectureship at the University of Malaya. He worked in Singapore for three years before returning to London. His experience in the capital was less than enjoyable. He described himself as having had "no home, no income of any kind and no prospects whatsoever".

He was fortunate enough to run in to a former colleague, Professor Robert Garry, on Oxford Street, which eventually led to a position at the University of Glasgow. Oddly enough, this was in the veterinary school, where, over eight years, he established a state-of-the art physiology department. It was here that Black took his first steps to becoming what he termed "an effective experimenter" by learning about the body's reaction to hormones. His work was revolutionary and he was generously funded by a pharmaceutical company, Imperial Chemical Industries, which provided him with his own laboratory.

Black effortlessly married his academic and industrial work. It was a combination of the two that produced his finest moment. In 1988 he, along with Gertrude B Elion and George H Hitchings, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine – the highest accolade in the scientific field – for his work on propanolol (although his other development work was also given recognition).

Propanolol is a non-selective beta-blocker which is used for the treatment of hypertension and is especially effective against the causes of angina, heart attacks and anxiety as it blocks the body's response to stress hormones. It is also the only drug proven to prevent migraines in children. Propanolol was Black's brainchild, and he developed it in the late 1950s. It is important to note that the other recipients of the Noble Prize that year were two Americans working on an unrelated project. Propanolol was all Black's.

Since its introduction, propanolol has proven to be a highly versatile drug with few adverse side affects, and plenty of useful ones. As a result, it is considered to be one of the most significant contributions to medicine and pharmacology in the 20th century. In fact, it has been described as "the greatest breakthrough when it comes to pharmaceuticals against heart illness since the discovery of digitalis 200 years ago".

It is no understatement to say that hundreds of thousands of heart patients have had their lives saved by Black's invention, and millions more have had their lives drastically improved. The drug is so effective that it continues to be used as the default treatment for hypertension nearly half a century later.

As important as the discovery of propanolol was, Black was hardly one to rest on his laurels. He was instrumental in the development of another drug, cimetidine, used in the treatment of peptic ulcers. The invention of cimetidine meant that a potentially life threatening disease became much easier to manage. This too was a revolutionary drug and the first in a new class of treatments.

Black was an innovator. Indeed, he liked to refer himself as a "pharmacological toolmaker" and as a result his career was littered with awards and prizes.

He was first recognised in 1976 when he was awarded the Lasker Award for Medical Research. This was followed in 1979 by the Artois-Baillet Latour Health Prize and in 1981 he was made a Knight Bachelor.

Then in 2000 he was awarded the Order of Merit, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon an individual by the Queen. The Order of Merit is so rare that since it was established in 1902 only 173 people have been awarded a membership.

In his academic career he held several senior positions, including a stint at the Wellcome Foundation (1978 to 1984) in London and professorial roles in pharmacology at University College London (1973 to 1978) and King's College London (1984 to 1992).

As well as his work with Imperial Chemical Industries from 1958 to 1964, he worked for Smith, Kline and French Laboratories between 1964 and 1973.

That company was later to become known, after various name changes and mergers, as GlaxoSmithKline, the world's second largest pharmaceutical company. GlaxoSmithKline's current status in the pharmaceutical market is due in no small way to the development by Black and his colleagues of cimetidine.

His marriage to Hilary produced one daughter, Stephanie, and in 1994 he remarried in a quiet ceremony in Bearsden. Rona Mackie was a respected dermatologist and skin cancer researcher at Glasgow University, and is now professor at the Department of Public Health and Health Policy at the same institution. She is a widely respected malignant melanoma specialist.

Sir James Whyte Black, revolutionary drug developer and a man who could genuinely claim to have almost singlehandedly improved the lives of millions of normal people, died aged 85 on Monday, 22 March after a long illness. He is survived by Lady Rona Black, his daughter Stephanie and step children Alison and Douglas.

 
 
 

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