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A year in the physiology department at St Andrews


Highlights of the St Andrews and Dundee Medical Schools
James Black Scientist
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St Andrews was just a... a great experience. This was 1941, early in the war, and St Andrews was a small place. I think there was about 500 students, and so, almost literally, you knew everybody through the Students' Union and dances at the weekend, and so on. And it was...

[Q] So how old were you when you went to St Andrews?

I was just 16. Yes, so... so... the highlight of St Andrews... it meant... it... I went to do medicine. Now, why did I want to do medicine? My elder brother had done medicine and I used to see his books at home, and I suppose that fired my imagination. So I opted to do medicine, and I remember Irvine asking me: was I motivated by, you know, wanting to do good? It just hadn't crossed my mind. I didn't think it was that. I... I thought it just looked like a subject which was rich in its possibilities, which it is. And so, anyway, as part of that the first two years medical school are in St Andrews, then the last three years, in those days, you went to Dundee. And, the highlight of my undergraduate period at St Andrews was meeting D'Arcy Thompson, and by this time he was in his 80s, and he used to walk through St Andrews with a big black cloak and a black hat, like Darwin, with a parrot on his shoulder. And... but he was a very exciting teacher, and, so, you know, I devoured his book Growth and Fall, and so on, which got me interested in the mathematics of living things. Anyway, medical school: I enjoyed it. I was impressed by... I had, in medicine, two teachers. One, the Professor, Adam Patrick, who was like Mr Pickwick: frizzle grey hair and pebble glasses and a be… benign look on his face. And Adam could very rarely come to a diagnosis when presented with a patient. He was always tentative, and he went to every post-mortem. And the other teacher, Dr Clarke, he never went to a post-mortem and he always came to a diagnosis. And so, right… I was imprinted with this about the... the fact that there's this inverse relationship between testing out your experience and how firm your conclusions are. Now, one thing I didn't like about my medical training was, to me… it had to be individual. It had to me treating you. And, the way we were being taught was you weren't you – you were a member of a class: liver disease, heart failure, whatnot – and so in some ways they took the personality out of medicine. I... I didn't like that. And… so, when I graduated, I... I'm appalled now at my stupidity or confidence – I don't know which it was... so as soon as I graduated I did two things. I got married, and I went round to the Professor of Physiology's door and said, 'Give me a job', which he did. So, my... soon as I graduated I went into physiology, which seemed to me a subject which was... it would give me the scope which I wanted, which was free of all these emotional problems.

The late Scottish pharmacologist Sir James W Black (1924-2010) revolutionised medical treatment of hypertension and angina with his invention of propranolol, the first ever beta blocker. This and his synthesis of cimetidine, used for the treatment of peptic ulcers, earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988.

Listeners: William Duncan

After graduating with a BSc Bill Duncan went on to gain a PhD from Edinburgh University in 1956. He joined the Pharmaceuticals Division of ICI where he contributed to the development of a number of drugs. In 1958, he started a collaboration with Jim Black working on beta blockers and left ICI with him in 1963 to join the Research Institute of Smith Kline & French as Head of Biochemistry. He collaborated closely with Black on the H2 antagonist programme and this work continued when, in 1968, Duncan was appointed the Director of the Research Institute. In 1979, he moved back to ICI as Deputy Chairman (Technical), a post he occupied until 1986 when he became Chairman and CEO of Coopers Animal Health. He ‘retired’ in 1989 but his retirement was short-lived and he held a number of directorships in venture capital backed companies. One of his part-time activities was membership of the Bioscience Advisory Board of Johnson and Johnson who asked him to become Chairman of the Pharmaceutical Research Institute of Johnson and Johnson in New Jersey. For personal reasons he returned to the UK in 1999, but was retained by Johnson and Johnson until 2006 in a number of senior position in R&D working from the UK. From 1999 to 2007 he was a non-executive director of the James Black Foundation. He is now fully retired.

Tags: University of St Andrews, University of St Andrews Medical School, 1941, WWII, Dundee, Dundee University Medical School, Growth and Fall, James Irvine, D'Arcy Thompson, Charles Darwin, Adam Patrick

Duration: 4 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008