Sir James Black made some of the most significant medical discoveries of the Twentieth Century. James Black is one of the few people in the History of Medicine to have left his mark through his medical developments seem to have remained far more famous than Black himself who preferred to keep out of the public limelight.


Sir James Black was born on June 14th 1924 in Lanarkshire, Scotland. He was brought up in Fife. His father was a mining engineer but with five sons to bring up money was tight. Black was encouraged by one of his teachers to attempt the entrance exams for the University of St. Andrews and aged fifteen he won a scholarship to this university where he studied medicine.


After graduating, Black taught in Singapore for three years before moving back to London in 1950. He returned to Scotland where he joined the University of Glasgow and established the Physiology Department. In 1958, Black joined ICI and it was while he was working for ICI that he made his greatest discovery.


Black worked for ICI from 1958 to 1964. During this time he developed propanolol – a beta-blocker. Propanolol became the world’s most widely sold drug and is credited with saving the lives of millions of people who suffered from heart disease. The development of Propanolol is now considered to be one of the most important medical events of the Twentieth Century.


Black continued his research at ICI and invested his time in finding a drug that could treat stomach ulcers. However, ICI did share his interest in this research and Black quit the company. He joined Smith, Kline and French and while he was working for them he developed he second major medical find – cimetidine, which was used to treat peptic ulcers. In 1975 this was launched under the brand name of Tagamet and overtook Propanolol as the biggest selling prescription medicine in the world.


Black was appointed Professor of Pharmacology at London University. He left this post in protest at the lack of funding for research. He joined the Wellcome Research Laboratories in 1978. In 1981, Black received a knighthood in recognition of his medical discoveries. In 1984 he resigned from this post after falling out with his boss, Sir John Vane.


In 1988 Sir James Black was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine along with Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings.


Black was appointed Head of Analytical Pharmacology at King’s College, London and remained in this post until 1992. During these years he spent his time trying to find a drug that could be used to treat stomach cancers.  


In 2000, Black was awarded an Order of Merit – an honour held by only twenty-four members at any one time.


Between 1992 and 2006 Sir James Black was Chancellor of Dundee University.


Sir James Black died on March 22nd 2010. Obituaries called him “one of the greatest Scottish scientists of the Twentieth Century” while others stated that he had made more money for pharmaceutical companies than anyone else in the same century – though he made little personal financial gain from Propanolol and Cimetidine.

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