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To be responsible for the discovery of one major class of drugs is remarkable enough; to provide modern medicine with two is frankly amazing. But, the amazing sometimes happens and we owe the discovery of both beta blockers and H2 antagonists to the same Scottish pharmacologist—Sir James Black.

The only time I ever met Black was when I attended one of his lectures in the mid 1980s, which to my surprise turned out to be a rather intimate affair one early evening in our hospital lecture room. There were probably no more than 20 or 30 people there, but that did not seem to matter.

This was before he had received the call from Stockholm to become the joint recipient of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, but his stature was already assured and his distinguished reputation preceded him into the room. We prepared ourselves to be dazzled and he did not disappoint, but perhaps not for the obvious reasons.

His talk that evening was on the intricacies of his discoveries, his methods and his remaining goals. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not spend much time talking about what he had discovered, preferring to focus on how he had done it. Discussing his methodology, his eyes twinkled as he talked of his favourite kinds of experiments. “Friday afternoon experiments, they’re the best kind.”

With the week’s work done, the chemistry set of the corporate laboratory could now be played with to test the ridiculous and attempt the absurd. All those “what ifs” and “I wonder what would happen when” questions could be explored without compromising the day job. Black had spent most of his career in industry. Indeed AstraZeneca, the love child of his employer ICI, used to display his gold Nobel medal proudly in their central reception. His research at that time would have been carefully planned, vetted, approved and overseen, but on Friday afternoons he could ski off piste.

He explained that most of his greatest leads had come from such Friday afternoon experiments and encouraged us to do likewise and perhaps we might strike (Nobel) gold too. But, like all great scientists, the honours that hung around him were not what it was all about. His need to question and his hunger for understanding were undiminished. His success and celebrity had been the almost incidental, if inevitable, consequences of his discoveries. He clearly loved his work—had loved it and still loved it. He was happiest gathering data and sifting it for glinting nuggets in the form of answers.

Black also talked of the future, for despite his seniority he was clearly far from done. Like the best scientists his most interesting results were those he was still studying from yesterday’s experiment and his greatest experiment would be the one he was designing today to be conducted tomorrow.

He was at the time in his sixties, but far from old. And his playfulness had probably contributed to that. As a friend recently reminded me, we do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.

I think we sometimes forget what it is all about. We wanted to be scientists so we could be part of this magical business of discovery. Perhaps we had the workings of the cell in mind, or the movements of the stars, but whatever our motivations we began with the hope of finding something new and perhaps, one day, understanding something for the very first time. However, the day to day reality of science in either academia or industry can sometimes seem a little at odds with all this. But we should not forget why we wanted to be scientists in the first place. Black had clearly not forgotten, and yes he was in a position to capitalise on his sense of childlike wonder, but only because he still possessed it after a lifetime of hard work and dedication.

That evening he talked of dreams and dreams fulfilled, but also of the steady trudge through it all. He reminded us of the thrill of science and urged us never to forget how to play on a Friday afternoon.

© Allan Gaw 2015

My books available on kindle:

My books available on kindle:

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