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Issue 3 - Paint it black

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


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Paint it black

David Hunter discovers a Scottish pioneer that's touched the heart of the modern world - literally: Sir James Whyte Black

To paraphrase the Rolling Stones: Although he’s not really / There’s a little orange pill / And he goes running for the shelter / Of an actor’s little helper

This orange pill, although some come in white, is the beta-blocker. Thespians use these tablets to help them overcome stage fright. They are so called, because they block the beta-receptors on the heart that respond to adrenaline. And although you may still be producing adrenaline, your heart rate is normal, your mouth is no longer dry and your palms are no longer sweaty. In effect your body’s engine, the heart, is no longer revving in third gear but cruising in fifth.

The Scottish scientist who pioneered these pills was Sir James Whyte Black. This is living proof that not only whisky in these chessboard colours is a premium Scottish product. Sir James Black received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988. At a London press conference he quipped, “I wish I had my beta-blockers handy”. The Nobel committee said of beta-blockers “The greatest breakthrough when it comes to pharmaceuticals against heart illness since the discovery of digitalis 200 years ago”. Over a three-year trial, sufferers of heart disease given beta-blockers had four times less fatal heart attacks than similar untreated patients. I, personally, can testify to the benefits of beta-blockers. Before these taking these tablets I was a mental and physical wreck tormented by acute anxiety and running on adrenaline overload. Now I have a reasonably normal life. Sir James, if you will excuse the pun, you have my heartfelt thanks. Sir James knows a concert pianist who uses beta-blockers and there have been well publicised media reports of snooker players using them.

The then-James Black was born in Uddingston in 1924. He was educated at Beath High School, Cowdenbeath and St. Andrew’s University. He worked at St. Andrews and in Malaya before ending his exile by returning to work at Glasgow Veterinary School from 1950 to 1958. There he laid the foundations of his groundbreaking work on beta-blockers and also his subsequent triumph in developing a blocker for gastric acid production which revolutionised the treatment of stomach ulcers. For producing twin cures for heart and stomach ailments Winston Churchill might have said ‘Seldom in the field of human medicine, have so many owed so much to one man’.

In 1958, wishing to develop his ideas further he contacted ICI about a grant. To his amazement ICI offered him his own laboratories. Working in Alderley Edge, Cheshire he developed the first betablocker, propranolol in 1964. That same year, not wishing to be sucked into the whirlpool of production and promotion of this magical medicine, he started looking for a research opportunity to develop his gastric acid blocker ideas.
Then Edward Paget, an ex-colleague from ICI who was now Research Director of Smith Kline and French, asked him about finding a pharmacologist to run their research. Then, as Sir James says in his online autobiography “Half-jokingly I asked what was wrong with me.”

From 1964 to 1973 James Black worked with Paget at developing the first gastric acid blocker, cimetidine. The modern ulcer wonder drugs Zantac and Tagamet are members of this family of medicines. Again, wishing to avoid development and concentrate on research, he moved on
to fresh woods and pastures new. He became Professor of Pharmacology at University College London. From 1978 he was Director of Therapeutic Research at Wellcome Laboratories. He became Professor of Analytical Pharmacology at King’s College Hospital Medical School in 1984 and is still Emeritus Professor. Sir James is still hard at work developing new drugs but understandably refuses to give details of what they are.

Sir James Black was knighted in 1981. He became Chancellor of Dundee University in 1992. The James Black foundation was set up in 1988 as a small non-profit research organisation without the cumbersome bureaucracy of larger groups. In 2000 Sir James was awarded the Order of Merit, the highest personal distinction a sovereign can bestow on someone for exceptional work in science and other areas. This elite group never numbers more than 24 at any one time.

Recently Sir James, having had two new knees fitted, has taken up golf again. This nearly caused his demise when he could not figure out how to stop the golf buggy. It is reassuring to know geniuses make mistakes like the rest of us. He is human after all.

Read more about Sir James online at -autobio.html