Sir James Black, the passing of a great man

29 Mar 2010

Sir James Black was one of the greatest drug discoverers of the twentieth century. He died last week, aged 85, and although I hadn't seen him in a year or two, I never thought of him as anything other than sixty-ish! He was an extraordinary man in many ways, not just as the umpteenth Scots inventor, but as an intensely modest man, immune to the spotlights thrust upon him after his Nobel Laureate. He didn't merely invent one blockbuster, propranalol, but two - the second was cimetidine. Can any other man or woman claim to have relieved so much pain, anginal and epigastric, and prolonged so many useful lives? And unabashed, continue his work into his eighties convinced that he could crack part of the cancer problem by rational drug design. I read of his death while in Barcelona for the European Breast Cancer Conference, and just after hearing of some retrospective indications that hypertensive patients taking his drug, propranalol had a lower incidence of cancer! He would have been tickled pink, but critical of the study, had he heard the link.

I met him on several occasions one of which is featured in the accompanying picture. This was the opening of the Cancer Research Campaign Labs at the University of Aston. The CRC team, led by Malcolm Stevens, and certainly inspired by Sir James, went on to emulate him by making the blockbuster temozolomide. He also was instrumental in expanding the translational oncology research work at Dundee University where, again the Cancer Research Campaign funded a joint team under the leadership of Sir David Lane, famous for p53, and Sir Alf Cuschieri, pioneer of keyhole surgery. The labs were unsurprisingly called the Sir James Black Laboratories.

On a personal note, it was wonderful to meet him socially with Professor Rona McKie, one of the most important clinical scientists in the field of malignant melanoma, with whom I worked in Glasgow in the 1970s. My sympathies go out to Rona and their families.