Dr. James Black: Nobel Laureate & Drug Discovery Champion

Dr. James Black – A Champion of Drug Discovery

In this article, you will find information about Dr. James Black, a famous pharmacologist, and Nobel Laureate. 

Who was Dr. James Black? 

Sir James Black was a Scottish Physician. He was one of the pioneers of analytical pharmacology, the science of determining the mechanism of actions of drugs. He also championed medicinal chemistry, which is the basic science of new drug discovery. He excelled at building new active molecules, that are similar to the structure of a naturally occurring chemical, which is implicated in a disease. For "his discoveries of important principles for drug treatment," he received the Noble Prize for Medicine in 1988. He was also awarded the UK's highest honor, the Order of Merit in 2000.

Major Scientific Contributions of Dr. James Black

Dr. Black was the inventor of two important drugs, namely, propranolol (the first beta-blocker developed by Dr. Black in the 1960s) and cimetidine (the first H-2 receptor blocker developed by Dr. Black in the 1970s). Both propranolol and cimetidine targeted new pathways and turned out to be blockbuster molecules that transformed the practices of cardiology and gastroenterology, respectively. 

Sir James Whyte Black
Dr. James Black
Image Credit: Nobel Foundation

Qualifications of Dr. James black

Though he mastered both analytical pharmacology and medicinal chemistry more than did many of his contemporary physicians, Dr. Black did not receive formal qualifications in these specialties or any other specialized research training after receiving his basic medical training. Dr. Black received his medical qualification from the University of St. Andrews. After he was diagnosed with osteoclastoma, a bone tumor, he received radiotherapy and remained partly disabled for the rest of his life. He was no more interested in clinical practice and instead chose to be a teacher and researcher in physiology. Then, he developed a keen interest in cardiovascular physiology and analytical pharmacology during his laboratory experiments over the next few years.

Professional Life of Dr. James Black

Impressed by his work, Dr. Black was granted research funding by a pharma company to identify and develop new agents that can selectively inhibit the effects of adrenaline on the heart in patients with angina. In a short span of time, he was successful at developing propranolol, the first in its class of beta-blockers. Later, he received research funding from another pharma company to develop a new agent reducing acid production in the stomach of patients with peptic ulcers. He was successful again and developed cimetidine, the first in its class of H-2 blockers.   

After these discoveries, he continued to teach and advance the specialties of analytical pharmacology and medicinal chemistry at distinguished institutions, such as the University College of London and King's College, London. He also founded the James Black Foundation, an independent research group. The last assignment in his professional career was that of the Chancellor of the University of Dundee. He loved his students and was an excellent mentor to them. His legacy continues to inspire the medical and scientific community. Meanwhile, his inventions have continued to touch and save the lives of millions of patients worldwide.   

Drug Discovery Methods of Dr. James Black and His Team

Dr. James Black and his colleagues were masters of several methods of analytical pharmacology and medicinal chemistry. These methods included: i) employing highly sensitive and specific bioassays to assess the activity of different ligands acting at specific receptors, such as beta (adrenaline) receptors, and gastrin (histamine) receptors ii) synthesizing unique ligands based on the principle of deriving a receptor antagonist from a partial agonist of that receptor; this approach involved the formation of several intermediary molecules between a partial agonist and an antagonist, iii) analyzing and plotting dose-response curves of the ligands using complex regression models and statistical methods, which are integral to molecular modeling iv) defining ligand-receptor interactions and variations across tissues and species to form explanatory theories about their findings.

Dr. James Black extensively elucidated these methods in depth in one of his written works: A Personal View of Pharmacology. This work of Dr. James Black can be considered a masterpiece on the subjects of analytical pharmacology and medicinal chemistry. In this work and in his other writings, Dr. James Black highlighted that these methods were manual and experimental and required rigorous work in the laboratories, unlike the modern drug-discovery methods that are based on the use of computers (high-throughput screening). 

Nevertheless, he predicted that of all the methods used by their team, the bioassays perfected by his team and the methods of molecular modeling would remain relevant and integral to drug discovery despite the computing advances in drug discovery.

References and Suggested Readings:

About the Author of this Article

Dr. Naval Asija is a licensed MBBS Physician from India. MBBS is the equivalent of the MD degree offered by international medical schools. He is based in Delhi, India, and works as a medical writer, editor, and consultant. He supports medical researchers as an author's editor, medical communication companies involved in medico-marketing activities, and medical technology companies in improving their products. He can be contacted via his LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/navalasija/


By using our website, we imply that you agree to its terms of use and privacy policy. For full details, you can refer to these documents by clicking the links: Privacy Policy and Terms of Use