Lives of the fellows

James Barry Douglas Palmer

b.6 April 1953 d.26 October 2004
MB ChB Aberd(1978) MRCP(1981) FRCP Edin(1991) FRCP(1996) FFPM(1996)

The premature death of James Palmer, aged 51, cut short an already outstanding career that had much more to offer. A consummate physician, who then distinguished himself in pharmaceutical research and development, he had become an exemplary business leader.

After Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, he proceeded in 1971 to medical school there. He repeated his first year due to Hodgkin's disease and its treatment. He combined a hectic social life and a diligent academic one. In 1978, he graduated with commendation, and was awarded distinctions and prizes in medicine and surgery. Shortly afterwards he married Susie Davidson, who was a fellow medical student and had qualified the year before.

After house jobs, he began a rotation in Aberdeen and, within three years of graduation, obtained his MRCP. His father Ken Palmer [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.441], was a much-loved respiratory physician in Aberdeen, and James followed his example, working as registrar to James Friend and Joe Legge in thoracic medicine.

In November 1983 he obtained a MRC research fellowship with Peter Barnes at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London. He really took to research, studying the effects of various neuropeptides in the airways, using an in-vitro smooth muscle bath, with Francis Cuss who was another research fellow. He was also involved in several related clinical studies in asthma. James was a first class research fellow, by then he had several joint publications, and a career in academic and clinical medicine beckoned.

However, a post as a respiratory physician arose in Glaxo Group Research, where the portfolio of new anti-asthmatic drugs was expanding, and he changed the direction of his career. It was an astute decision for him and for the company. James' reputation amongst academics helped to develop in partnership a sensible strategy for these new therapies. Two years later he became director of respiratory clinical research. The development of salmeterol (Serevent) and fluticasone proprionate (Flixotide and Flixonase) was his responsibility. By virtue of his credibility with respiratory clinicians and his skills of organisation and leadership, he was able to achieve large-scale international clinical trials that are essential for world-wide drug development and registration. His links with academic medicine and research remained, with over 50 joint publications, many lectures and oral papers. At the European Respiratory Society scientific launch of salmeterol he pointed out its potential combination with fluticasone, leading to Seretide, which became a runaway success. Furthermore, James realised the likely value of these products in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which was partly responsible for the greater priority given to this condition. Glaxo developed the diskhaler device and controlled-release salbutamol (Volmax) and he directed other research programmes, for instance looking at thromboxane antagonists for asthma. He managed a major programme of successful and timely regulatory submissions for these products.

In this remarkable five-year period, James demonstrated his leadership skills. He was popular, easily approached by everyone and exuded a clear philosophy of dedicated clinical research and integrity. Senior Glaxo management saw in him those invaluable qualities and, with the forthcoming US registration of the new respiratory products, moved him to Glaxo Inc in 1990. There he supervised their submission and approval, as well as four other products. Within two years, he became senior vice president, medical operations and chief medical officer. He and his family enjoyed the US, and his future career remained there, as Glaxo merged with Burroughs Wellcome, whose US headquarters were also in Research Triangle Park. Under the chairman, Richard Sykes, and working closely with Jim Niedel, research director at Glaxo Inc, who was another ex-academic, he integrated the global medical operations for Glaxo Wellcome. In 1996, he became senior vice president and director, group medical and regulatory operations, with about 3,000 world-wide staff under him. He applied for and became a US citizen.

The creation of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in 2000 was a second wave of integration in just over five years. His post as senior vice president for new product development kept the same portfolio, but now with over 5,000 staff. However, several senior colleagues departed, and some aspects of the culture and philosophy were different. He left GSK and joined Bristol-Myers Squibb in December 2002, based in Princeton, New Jersey. He made a huge contribution in his short time there, leading efforts to get approval for three important new products. As always, his experience and expertise, coupled with his sheer humanity had a powerful impact on his colleagues. He was relentless in making every detail of clinical trial data available to everyone in a format that was the envy of the industry. He was widely admired and made many friends.

The pharmaceutical industry has been criticised for putting profit before patient interests, and the role of the senior medical officer is ultimately to act as the final professional arbiter between these potentially conflicting interests. James fulfilled this role admirably. Similarly, he was prepared to put and stand by his views at the highest level of the company. He was sure-footed in his decision making. A man of great integrity and principle, a strong leader, doctors like James are essential for the effective running of what is, at heart, an ethical and responsible industry. Throughout he retained old friendships and an infectious humour, wiping tears from his eyes as tales were exchanged.

Unfortunately, he developed a pulmonary mesothelioma, undoubtedly related to the whole-body irradiation given for his Hodgkin's disease as a young man, from which he died. Throughout he continued working, not evidencing the seriousness of his condition, and his fortitude was remarkable. He lived and died with dignity. James had the love and support of his devoted wife, Susie, and their children, Ralph, Sarah and Alexandra, of his mother, Rosie, and two sisters, Tessa Jowell and Eske Palmer.

Robert N Smith

[Int J Pharm Med, 2005: 18 (5): 1;Pharmaceutical Physician, Jan 2005, Vol. 15, No.4, p.27; Brit.med.J.,, 2005, 330, 150]

(Volume XII, page web)

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