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Black, James

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James Black

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James W. Black
(July 14, 1924 - March 22, 2010)
Born in Scotland
Year of Discovery: 1964, 1972


Image Courtesy: Lasker Foundation

Transformed Heart and Blood Pressure Treatments

Sometimes a bit of inspiration is necessary to move a life in the right direction. Black, a self-described daydreamer, coasted through most of his school years. He did, however, become intensely interested in both math and music during two separate periods of his young teen years. There were also the physiology books his older brother was bringing home from his medical training. This was the spark of inspiration the young Black needed. When he won a scholarship to St. Andrews University he decided to study medicine. It was here the young daydreamer became the determined scientist. Black was captivated by the scientific process and he developed a love for hard work and disciplined research. His persistence, coupled with his keen insight, eventually led to his breakthrough development of the first beta blocker, propranolol. Black's unique approach to treating severe chest pains (angina pectoris) became the worldwide standard and beta blockers continue to be a mainline treatment for heart rhythm disorders and high blood pressure.

Narrowed arteries can be a killer. People with narrowed arteries, the underlying cause of most high blood pressure and heart disease, are at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke because whenever the body needs more oxygen, it responds by having the heart pump harder.   Beta blockers take a unique approach to easing stress on the heart. Rather than attempting to increase the supply of oxygen to the heart, beta blockers reduce the heart’s demand for additional oxygen.  They block the action of adrenalin-responsive beta receptors on the heart’s membranes. The result is a continued normal demand for oxygen and a lowered risk of heart attack or stroke.

Black brought an insightful mind and a steady work ethic to his research. When he first explored the development of a drug to fight against heart attacks he found himself on the other side of the scientific common wisdom. Those already studying the issue were seeking ways to increase the supply of oxygen that reached the heart. This certainly seemed reasonable, as it was the lack of oxygen that caused the severe chest pain and other difficulties. But, Black had a different idea. He reasoned the best approach might be to reduce the heart’s demand for oxygen instead. It was this novel approach that opened the door to his breakthrough development of the first beta blocker drug. He had been interested in blood pressure and its effect on the metabolism for many years. This research provided the perfect outlet for him to explore this relationship in depth. Black’s success was remarkable. His drug effectively reduced the workload of the heart without requiring the supply of additional oxygen. His unique ability to see beyond the conventional wisdom provided the breakthrough that became the early standard in treating heart disease.
Black’s remarkable achievements certainly never went to his head. He once told an interviewer that he was unsure whether he was even actually a scientist. “Well, I’m untrained, you see,” said Black. “I’ve never had any formal instruction in experimental science - I’ve just picked it up. I’ve never done a Ph.D.” Scientist or not, many are alive today thanks to his brilliance.

Introduction by Tim Anderson


Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Similar Scientists
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Key Contributing Scientists
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science autobiography: press release:

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Molecular Interventions interview with James Black:

McGill Reporter article detailing Black's work with beta-blockers:

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist



Similar Scientists

Explore these other scientists who have something significant in common with this science hero.
Science Heroes Born in Scotland

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Alexander Fleming

Discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin

Born August 6, 1881, at Lochfield farm in East Ayrshire, Scotland - Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin.

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James Black

Developed beta blockers

Born July 14, 1924, in Scotland - Black developed beta blockers to treat heart rhythm disorders and high blood pressure.

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Joseph Lister

Developed the antiseptic surgical technique

Born April 5, 1827, in England (Lister gets "honorable mention," as his discovery was made in Scotland) - Lister developed the antiseptic surgical technique, ushering in the era of sterile surgical practices.

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Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

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Key Contributing Scientists to the Discovery

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist



Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science


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