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Setting up my own research unit


Leaving the Wellcome Foundation and moving to King's College
James Black Scientist
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So, there I was running my R&D department, running into management problems with John, then he became... I remember vividly. What happened was he was being lined up for the chop, as you might say in industrial terms. I remember hearing the news, 1986 October, that John Vane had got a Nobel Prize, and I remember thinking that's it, and of course sure enough that was it. He then called the shots, and so we ended up having a... a head to head, and so he offered me a number of options of which the only one that appealed to me was to leave, but to leave with a dowry. And so I ended up negotiating with the Chairman of the company about my dowry, so I got funds for 5 years and I got agreement that I could take all my equipment with me, and any of the staff who wanted to come with me could come.

Well, if we take these one by one. First of all the equipment: I had the Chairman's word that I could take everything so we got a pantechnicon which came in one evening when everybody had gone and my youngsters worked through the night and we put everything, and I mean everything, into that van. So in the morning there was absolutely empty labs, no tables, not... just the whole caboodle had gone. And apparently when they came in, in the morning, you know, their jaws dropped. Anyway, I had had the Chairman's word, but that was that. Then... the other thing was all my young... youngsters who were working with me said, 'Oh yes', they would come, and then one by one they came and said, 'Sorry', they couldn't come. And then one day one of the young girls who had said she would come, then she said she wouldn't come, then she came back and said: 'I wonder if I could change my mind'. She said that there had been pressure put on them all not to come, and she thought it wasn't honourable, so could she change her mind. And so she did, and she came and she got a lovely PhD with me when we came up here to King's College, which I'm now coming to. So I have 5 years money, I've got equipment and now I need a home, and I started off with University College, and they showed me a garret up on the top of the building from which they wanted some huge rent, and really it wasn't appealing to me. Then I... I can't remember whether I did it deliberately or, but anyway, I got in touch with... oh, my goodness me... he was now Professor of Pharmacology at King's College. His name will come in a moment; I'll remember. But he, I remember, arranged for me to meet the Principal, who at that time was a retired air force officer, military gentleman – Scottish – and I had a lovely interview with him. And he arranged for me, the next day, to see the Dean of the Medical School down at King's College, and that day he showed me an empty lab in the Rayne Institute over there, and said... you know. So we shook hands on the deal, I had the lab; then I found a terrace house just outside, just round the corner from the labs, and I rented the terrace house and I had my people in there, so four people came with me who were all housed in there. We had the labs and we were working away.

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: Wellcome Foundation, 1986, Nobel Prize, King's College London, UCL, Rayne Institute, John Vane

Duration: 4 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008