Lives of the fellows

John Robert (Sir) Vane

b.29 March 1927 d.19 November 2004
Kt(1984) BSc Birmingham(1946) BSc Oxon(1949) DPhil(1953) DSc(1970) FRS(1974) Hon FRCP(1983) Hon FRCPath(1990) Hon FRCS(1995)

Sir John Robert Vane was an ingenious and perceptive pharmacologist who shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 1982 for his discovery, in 1976, of prostacyclin, the blood vessel dilating prostaglandin that inhibits blood clotting and his earlier work on how aspirin worked which potentially saved many lives which would have otherwise been lost to heart disease or strokes.

Born in Tardebigg, Worcestershire, his father was Maurice, who came from a Russian immigrant background and ran a company making portable buildings, and his mother, Frances Florence née Fisher, was from a local farming family. Educated at King Edward VI School in Birmingham, he developed a passion for chemistry in his youth and managed, at the age of 12, to cause an explosion in his parents’ newly decorated kitchen – his father subsequently equipped a garden shed for his future experiments. He read chemistry at Birmingham University, graduating in 1946. Finding that he was not encouraged to experiment he lost interest in the subject and his professor suggested he took up pharmacology and introduced him to the Oxford pharmacologist, Harold (‘Josh’) Burn. He later wrote that ‘Without hesitation I grasped the opportunity. I immediately went to the library to find out what pharmacology was all about’.

Vane went to work for Burn in Oxford and enrolled in St Catherine’s College to do a BSc in pharmacology. Burn’s laboratory was becoming one of the most important centres for pharmacological research in the UK and Vane found him inspirational and full of enthusiasm for his subject. He graduated in 1949 and spent a year lecturing in the pharmacology department of Sheffield University before he returned to Oxford to complete his DPhil at the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research. Achieving his doctorate in 1953, he travelled to the USA and spent two years as assistant professor of pharmacology at Yale University.

On his return to the UK, he joined the staff of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences (IBMS) at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. When he arrived the head of the department was William Paten [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.410], who was succeeded in 1961 by an old colleague from Oxford days, Gustav Born. Appointed initially as a senior lecturer, he stayed for 18 years progressing to reader, and finally, professor of experimental pharmacology. His years at the IBMS were arguably the most fruitful in his career. Gathering about him a team of gifted and enthusiastic researchers he facilitated many important breakthroughs and nurtured the careers of several outstanding pharmacologists. At this time he perfected his signature bioassay system which enabled speedy measuring of the levels of many blood hormones simultaneously. It was the use of this system which enabled him to determine that aspirin inhibits the action of prostaglandins, leading to the conclusion that even a tiny dose of aspirin could be used to prevent blood clots, a common cause of heart attacks and strokes. Further research was to revolutionise the treatment of hypertension by assisting the development of angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors.

In 1973 he moved to the Wellcome Foundation as group research and development director. He spent 13 years at the Wellcome, but had less time for research as he had a heavy administrative role. Nevertheless he was able to facilitate and promote the work of others and, during his time there, his group discovered prostacyclin and Wellcome developed several important drugs including anti-viral agents, anti-gout drugs and muscle relaxants.

On retiring from the Wellcome in 1986, he became founding chairman and director of the William Harvey Research Institute at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School. Here he was able to realise his vision of a freestanding body dedicated to cardiovascular research. Although no longer doing laboratory work himself he actively encouraged investigation of a new generation of anti-inflammatory drugs. Ten years later he retired as director but still kept an office on the premises and continued active participation in the work there until his final illness.

The author of more than 900 scientific papers and over 20 books, he also received over 25 medals, prizes and awards and was made a fellow of around 30 societies or institutions (including fellow of the Royal Society in 1974). He was given honorary awards by more than 17 universities and, in 1984, he was knighted in the new year’s honours list for services to pharmaceutical science.

As was inevitable in the field in which he worked, his research was often based on the use of laboratory animals. Animal rights extremists led a particularly vindictive campaign against him, at one time setting fire to his house. His response was to support the Biomedical Education Research Trust, which teaches pupils in schools about the processes of medical research, and the Research Defence Society, which fosters understanding of the use of laboratory animals.

He enjoyed photography, travel and underwater swimming. He and his wife built a house on the Caribbean island of Virgin Gorda in 1973 and they made regular winter visits from then onwards, extending lavish hospitality to friends from all over the world.

In 1948 he married Elizabeth Daphne née Page (‘Daphne’), whom he met while at Oxford on a student camping trip. They had two daughters, Nicki and Miranda. When he died in a nursing home of pneumonia, having broken his hip earlier in the year, Daphne and their daughters survived him.

RCP editor

[Lancet 2004 364 2090; BMJ 2004 329 1406; The Daily Telegraph 22 November 2004; The Guardian 25 November 2004; The Independent - all accessed 14 May 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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