Analytical Pharmacology
Designatory Letters: 
MB St And 1946, FRCP Lond 1976, FRCP Edin 1996

The death on 22nd March 2010 of Sir James Whyte Black, KB, OM, FRCP Edin, FRS, Nobel Laureate brought to an end one of the most brilliant careers of any medical man in recent times. It would be no exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, have benefited from his pioneering research and contributions to medicine and analytical pharmacology in particular.

He was born in Fife, Scotland and educated at Beath High School, Cowdenbeath before proceeding to St. Andrews University where he graduated in Medicine in 1946.He then spent a year as an Assistant lecturer in Physiology in his own alma mater, followed by three years lecturing and researching in Physiology in Malaya before returning to Scotland as Senior Lecturer in Glasgow Vet School in 1950.

Between 1958-1964 he worked in ICI Pharmaceuticals then, in 1973, moved to be Head of Biological Research and Deputy Research Director at Smith, Kline and French in England. In 1973 he was appointed Professor and Head of Department of Pharmacology, University College London. After six years in that post he became Director of Therapeutic Research, Wellcome Research laboratories finally, in 1984, being appointed Professor of Analytical Pharmacology, King’s College Hospital Medical School, London until his retirement. He focused on the interpretation of complex drug reactions using mathematical models. The year 1988 saw him found an independent research organisation for promoting the rational basis for new drug research and in1992 he was appointed Chancellor of Dundee University.

Many might say that the highlights of his distinguished career were being knighted in 1981, sharing the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1988, being a university Chancellor, having a research foundation named after him and being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Other honours included being made a Member of the British Pharmacological Society, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an Honorary Fellow of the University of London and being awarded the Mullard Prize of the Royal Society.

Doctors worldwide, however, will remember him for introducing the ß-blockers and H2 antagonists into clinical practice. He had long been interested in cardiovascular physiology and thought that a drug which might annul the effect of adrenaline on the heart might, by decreasing the organ’s demand for oxygen, ameliorate angina pectoris and attenuate the risk of sudden death due to ventricular fibrillation. He realised that Ahlquist’s α and β adrenoreceptor concept might lead to a drug or drugs capable of selective cardiac adrenergic blockade. The first such blocker he and his team at ICI found and clinically tested was pronethalol, followed by propanolol.

It was at that time that clear differences in the patterns of agonism and antagonism between α and β-receptors were developed. They pointed to a parallel with histamine responses and their antagonism. The well-known failure of antihistamines to suppress histamine-stimulated gastric acid secretion could be explained if different receptors were involved. Working between 1964 an 1972 at Smith, Kline, French, Black and his co-workers discovered burimamide, the prototype of histamine H2 receptor antagonists, which led to cimetidine. Never was it more truly said - the rest is history.

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh is proud to have had him as one of its Fellows and extends its sympathy to his widow Rona and their children.