Tuesday 23 March 2010

Death of Sir James Black

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of Sir James Whyte Black, Nobel Laureate and former Chancellor of the University of Dundee. Born and raised in Fife, James Black's association with Dundee dates back to 1943, when he came to the city as student in the Medical School, University College, Dundee. The picture below is from his matriculation record.

Graduating in 1946, he then spent a period as an Assistant Lecturer in Physiology at University College, Dundee before taking up positions at the Universities of Malaya and Glasgow. In 1958 he moved into the private sector, joining ICI Pharmaceuticals where he had a distinguished career as a physiologist and pharmacologist. Subsequently he was appointed as Head of Biological Research and Deputy Research Director with Smith, Kline and French, before returning to the University sector in 1973 as Professor of Pharmacology at University College London. In 1978 he was appointed to the prestigious role of Director of Therapeutic Research at the Wellcome Research Laboratories, a post he held for six years, before moving to King's College Hospital Medical School, University of London. During his research career Sir James was noted for his development of drugs to block physiological receptors, with perhaps his greatest achievement being the development of beta-blockers. He also revolutionised the treatment of ulcers with the development of the drug Tagament. His contribution to the advancement of medical science led to him being knighted in 1981 and in 1988 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in recognition of his ‘discoveries of important principles for drug treatment’. In 2000 he was awarded the Order of Merit by the Queen.

In 1980 the University of Dundee recognised the achievements of one of its most distinguished alumni by awarding James Black the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws. In 1992 when The Earl of Dalhousie retired as Chancellor Sir James was invited to succeed him. The then Principal Michael Hamlin was delighted by Sir James' acceptance of this offer, feeling that he was an ideal choice. As Hamlin noted not only was Sir James a graduate and an ex-member of staff, but his work in life sciences reflected what was (and still is) one of the University of Dundee's great research strengths. He was installed as Chancellor at a ceremony in the Rep Theatre on 29th April 1992, where the first degree he conferred was to Professor Robert Campbell Garry, the man who had been responsible for him getting his original appointment at Dundee almost five decades earlier. At the ceremony Sir James remarked that returning to Dundee was 'in a real sense, coming home.'

Predictably, Sir James proved to be an excellent chancellor until his retirement in 2006, doing much to promote the University of Dundee at local, national and international levels. He was a popular figure across the university community. At graduation ceremonies he showed a clear interest and enthusiasm in proceedings, although some graduands felt that he could be a little over exuberant in his application of the bonnet when he was capping them! His contribution to university life was recognised with the award of a second honorary degree (Doctor of Science) in 2005. Another tribute to the former Chancellor came in 2006 with the opening of the £20 million Sir James Black Centre by Nobel Laureate Sydney Bremner. The centre, which promotes interdisciplinary research in the life sciences, was visited by Sir James in October 2006 who was pleased and excited by the work he saw going on.

Sir James Black is undoubtedly one of the outstanding figures in the long history of university education in Dundee and he will be much missed. Archive Services hold a number of photographs of Sir James taken during his time as Chancellor, while more details about his extraordinary life can be found in University magazines and press materials held as part of the University records.

Dr Kenneth Baxter

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