Sir James Black, 1924-2010


In conversation with Kenneth Roy


The accident


In November 2002, at the inaugural Young Scotland Programme, Kenneth Roy interviewed Sir James Black. This is an abridged version of their conversation.

How did you end up as a man of science?
Like most things in life, by accident. I was number four in the family and number three had gone to St Andrews to do medicine, so I had access to his textbooks. One of these was called ‘The Living Body’ and it was a textbook of physiology. I thought it the most wonderful thing. My father had funded the other three boys – a huge economic burden. I would never have got to university if I hadn’t won a scholarship.

You have admitted to being a daydreamer as a child. Did you ever stop being a daydreamer?
I have never stopped.

Is an inventor a daydreamer perhaps by necessity?
I think you spend most of the time inside your own head.

And out of that head came a beta blocker. I’m not sure what it is. Will you explain it in simple language?
In 1952 I was working on the physiology of circulation when my father had a couple of heart attacks. The one he died from occurred 24 hours after a car accident. A trivial accident, but physiologically it wasn’t trivial. I’m thinking of stress.
     In the living body the sympathetic nerves are there to help us through emergencies. So it was natural to imagine that something which you need to get through emergencies can’t do bad things to you. That’s true if you’re healthy. But if you are putting this emergency system into a heart with damaged blood vessels, it is a different matter.
     What I wanted to do was to protect the heart from adrenaline. At that time there were drugs which blocked the actions of adrenaline. We knew that they would stop the blood pressure rising, and make it fall. In fact, if you took one of these drugs standing up, you fainted because you needed the sympathetic nerve system to keep your blood vessels fighting back. We also knew that, with these drugs, when you stood up your heart beat fast, so you weren’t blocking the effect of the drug.
     Then I had an accident and I came across this beta business. Life is played as a series of accidents. When you get your accidents, grasp them with both hands.
     My accident. In a book called ‘Pharmacology and Medicine’, there was a chapter by a scientist named Raymond Ahlqvist promoting his idea that adrenaline acts on tissues in two different ways. Some tissues respond by alpha-receptors, some by beta-receptors. The things that make your blood pressure go up are alpha-receptors and the things that make your heart pump fast are beta-receptors. It was obvious what I wanted.
     He published this paper in the 1940s. He thought he had made an invention – something that hadn’t been done before. He hadn’t. He had made a discovery.

As a result of this accident, as you call it, many people’s lives have been prolonged. Do you believe that science will go on prolonging human life?
I don’t know about prolonging it.

Well, people are living a great deal longer.
Don’t bank on it lasting.

Why not? George Bernard Shaw believed that eventually man will live for 300 years. Do you think that’s possible? Or desirable?
I don’t think the duration of life is the most important thing. The most important thing is the life you have while you are alive.

So you wouldn’t be against prolonging life?
What would it be for?

To enjoy it.
Then you are going to crowd out young people.

Question from the audience:
You would surely have to develop something to slow the ageing process itself. Can you imagine someone 150 years old and looking and acting that age but still being able to live?
Neanderthal man is the most successful species that has ever lived on this planet, and for 250,000 years he was in every corner of this planet. And then we had the notion of mutation and the start of Homo sapiens. Within a comparatively short time – tens of thousands of years – Neanderthal man had gone and Homo sapiens had taken over. The one fact – it could still be disproved, but it hasn’t been yet – is that Neanderthal man over the age of 40 has never been found. Whereas, with the three score years and 10, the grandmother or the mother is living alongside her daughter and is able to say: ‘Look, darling, we tried that and it didn’t work’.
     The essence of the three score years and 10 was education. Not having to re-learn each time. Now, that’s what we are programmed for. We are programmed for three score years and 10. To what extent can we improve on that? Nutrition. Do you know that one in three people in America now have diabetes or are going to get it? When you get diabetes we can protect you to some extent, but we can’t stop you from dying young. There is an epidemic of diabetes associated with how we cook food and what food we eat.

Do you think that today’s men and women aspire to idealism as much as they used to? The young don’t appear to be as interested in great causes.
You haven’t been listening to them.

Well, they don’t formalise their concern for the world in quite the way they did.
I think the human spirit is something you can destroy. Essentially it is a question of opportunity. My message is a simple one. I call it a principle of obliquity, although I don’t quite know what I mean. I’ll try to explain. There are some things in life which you don’t aim for. They are extras. I have seen people go into business and make decisions calculated to make money, and yet they have made a mess. When you see people aiming directly for something, it often doesn’t work. I don’t think you can plan your life. I think things happen and when they do, you have to seize the day.

Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
I had a passion for music. When I was 14 I got a beautiful new piano and the action on it was terrific. And along with it I got a beautiful music teacher. I fell in love with her. And from the ages of 14 to 16 I practised hours every day to impress this woman. When we moved I gave up and I regret that I haven’t maintained this interest.

When you look back on your life from your death-bed, what will determine in your mind whether you have succeeded or failed?
I live most of my time inside my head struggling with problems. I am not out there regarding myself.