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

BlackJames BlackTransformed Heart and Blood Pressure Treatments with a Beta Blocker Drug

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.” Thanks to his brilliance and diligence, one label that certainly fits is lifesaver.

Written by science writer, Tim Anderson
Lives Saved: Over 55,000,000

His invention of propranolol, the beta adrenergic receptor antagonist that revolutionized the medical management of angina pectoris, is considered to be one of the most important contributions to clinical medicine and pharmacology of the 20th century.
                                                - Melanie P. Stapleton, Texas Heart Institute Journal

The revolutionary drug was not found randomly testing drugs. Based on knowledge from other compounds tested, they synthesized a drug they believed would work.
Imperial Chemicals Industries' compound ICI 38,174, later known both as pronethalol, was said Sir James Black,  "Conceived in excitement and thrilled us at its birth."

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Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
Sir James Black  and Propranopol
James Black's Nobel Prize Biography

James Black's Wikipedia Page
Beta Blockers Wikipedia Page