Lives of the fellows

James Whyte (Sir) Black

b.14 June 1924 d.23 March 2010
KB(1981) OM(2000) MB ChB St Andrews(1946) FRS(1976) FRCP(1977) Hon FFPM(1989)

Sir James Whyte (‘Jim’) Black was the Nobel prize winning pharmacologist who developed propranolol, the first successful beta blocker to combat heart disease, and cimetidine which, when used to treat stomach ulcers, did away with the need for surgery. These discoveries ranked among the most important medical advances of the 20th century. Known as the father of analytical pharmacology, it was said that his work did more to relieve human suffering than any number of bedside clinicians.

Born in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, he grew up in Cowdenbeath, Fife, the fourth of five sons in a staunch Baptist home. His father, Walter, was a mining engineer and colliery manager who died of a heart attack after a particularly stressful day when Black was at medical school, an incident which may well have triggered his research into the need to protect the heart. He was educated at Beath High School where the excellence of the teaching compensated for the rickety buildings suffering from subsidence, as they were on top of old mine shafts and ‘propped up like a drunk on crutches’. At the age of 15 he won a residential scholarship to St Andrews to study medicine.

When he qualified in 1946 he decided to reject a conventional medical career disliking the impersonal approach to patients whereby they were often regarded as ‘the hernia in bed 10’. Instead he joined the physiology department at St Andrews where he worked on intestinal absorption and pondered over whether and how local blood flow could be a rate limiting factor in metabolism, an issue which would trigger much of his later work. He did not apply to do a PhD and later described himself as ‘one untrained in experimental science who picked it up along the way’. Beset by financial worries and with no clear job prospects he moved to Singapore in 1947 and worked as a lecturer in physiology at the King Edward VII College of Medicine for three years while continuing his research on absorption.

On his return he secured a senior lectureship at the Glasgow Veterinary College and, during the eight years he spent in Glasgow established a state of the art physiology department with sophisticated research laboratories. Later he commented ‘as I slowly learned, like a primitive painter, how to be an effective experimenter, ideas began to ferment’. It was at this time that he returned to the theories relating to protecting the heart against the effects of adrenaline that had been triggered by the death of his father. By 1958 he was using the work of Raymond Ahlqvist, an American physiologist, to try to find a beta-receptor antagonist to block adrenaline. When he approached ICI Pharmaceuticals division for extra funding they offered him a job at their new laboratories in Alderley Park and he stayed there for six years, which he was to describe as the most exciting time of his life, an ‘educational tour de force’.

By 1963 he had succeeded in his mission to produce a beta-blocker, the drug propranolol, which not only revolutionised the treatment of ischaemic heart disease but also was found to lower blood pressure and was therefore used to treat hypertension. He was becoming more involved with technical support and drug promotion than he wished to be and he was keen to start investigating drugs to alter gastric secretion, which ICI were not interested in funding. The following year he moved to Smith, Kline and French in Welwyn Garden City and there developed cimetidine, a hugely successful drug (it was the first to obtain sales of more than $1 billion) which was to cure patients with peptic ulcer, who up until then could only be treated by surgery.

In 1973 he was offered the chair of pharmacology at University College London and took it, happy to escape the constraints of the pharmaceutical industry. Sadly academia produced other limits in the form of bureaucracy and funding cuts and he was unable to achieve his aims of creating a new pharmacology course that included medicinal chemistry and a research programme that included medicinal chemistry and bioassay. Frustrated by this, he accepted the offer made by Sir John Vane [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web] to join the research laboratories funded by Wellcome in Beckenham, Kent in 1977. Once again he found that he was frustrated by his role in what turned out to be a very traditional establishment and his relationship with Vane became less than cordial. However he did manage to develop a good research programme in analytical pharmacology with a talented team of young investigators.

Seven years later the Wellcome Foundation agreed to set up and fund a small independent unit at King’s College Hospital Medical School and he became professor of analytical pharmacology at London University. In 1988, four years after the unit had been set up, Johnson and Johnson provided extra long term finance and he established the James Black Foundation with a team of 25 scientists to study receptor pharmacology. These years, unconstrained by commercial or bureaucratic pressures, were to be described by him as the most productive of his working life. He became emeritus professor in 1993 but never completely retired.

Honours were heaped upon him, although he was not a man to court such things. From 1992 to 2006 he was chancellor of the University of Dundee, a position he particularly enjoyed since it renewed his acquaintance with St Andrews. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society and given the Lasker prize in 1976 (jointly with Raymond Ahlqvist), knighted in 1981, awarded the Wolf prize for medicine in 1982 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 2000. In 1988 he was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine or physiology, jointly with two American pharmacological innovators, Trudy Elion and George Hitchens, for ‘their discoveries of important principles for drug development’. He was horrified by the possible publicity it would generate and said ‘It was like being kicked in the stomach; I was in an absolute funk. I went to the pub and contemplated my fate.’

Inspired initially by his father’s love of singing, music played a central role in his life – Berlioz was his favourite composer. A Radio 3 programme announcer once introduced him as ‘the Henry Moore of pharmacology’ and he did take a great pleasure in the arts generally. He was given two years to live after a diagnosis of disseminated prostate cancer in 2002 but, as his wife said ‘we managed eight and they were great years – concerts, church, opera festivals, collecting Scottish painters and seeing friends and family.’

He met his wife, Hilary Joan née Vaughan in 1944 at a student ball in St Andrews and they married in 1946. The daughter of Albert Vaughan, an engineer, she was a graduate in biochemistry who later studied law and poetry. Black wrote of her that ‘intellectually she was the most exciting person I have ever known and, quite simply, the mainspring of my life until she died in 1986’. Eight years later, in 1994, he married Rona McLeod MacKie, professor of dermatology at Glasgow University and an expert on malignant melanoma. Rona survived him together with Stephanie, his daughter from his first marriage, and his stepchildren Alison and Douglas.

RCP editor

[The Guardian; The Telegraph; Nobel Prize winners; The Independent; BMJ 2010 340 1817; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography all accessed on 28 August 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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