Today, we heal our ulcers -- first in our minds,
then in our bodies. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
In 1799 the Scottish chemist
Joseph Black died with an unspilled cup of milk in
his lap. Black is famous in thermodynamics. He gave
us specific and latent heats. But his doctoral work
was about alkaline stomach antacids.
Two centuries years later, we didn't know much more
about stomach acid. Then another Scot named Black
-- James Black -- turned his attention on the
Joseph Black had been quiet, reserved, and gentle.
James Black was not. He showed up in England's
Welwyn Research Institute in 1963, ready to eat
He'd already riveted the pharmaceutical world by
synthesizing beta-blockers. Now he set about to
invent a medicine for peptic ulcers. For nine years
he gave ulcers to everyone there.
Pharmaceutical research had been research in the
literal sense of the word. People searched for
drugs to heal illnesses.
But Black was an inventor, not a searcher. He
created the drug in his mind before he created it
in the lab. Those around him had a hard time with
that. They had a hard time with Black.
He was a bull in what'd been a scientific china
shop. What was he after? Senior people who worked
for him began quitting. A colleague who didn't quit
still called him "a very vexing man."
The common wisdom said you had to turn off the acid
generator. But Black meant to change the chemistry
of the GI system so the acid generators couldn't be
turned on in the first place.
He juggled histamines and antihistamines. He made
mistakes and others repaired them. Finally he
produced a histamine blocker that really worked.
The company gave the name Tagamet to the new
product, but they hadn't yet decided its chemistry.
In 1972, Black left Welwyn for a fancy university
chair. Welwyn went on gearing for production. They
started human testing. Suddenly they found bad side
effects in two patients.
Tagamet seemed doomed. But, in the 11th hour, the
company came up with another version that worked.
No serious side effects! So the name Tagamet
finally went on a chemical called cimetidine.
Tagamet did what no medicine had ever done for
ulcers. It really healed them. It replaced surgery.
Fiery James Black had almost finished what gentle
Joseph Black had started.
But the point is, he didn't finish it. He created
Tagamet in his mind, before it was finished in the
world. It never would have been finished without
solid efforts by scores of more worldly people.
And that, of course, is the way we advance. Good
technology flows from a diversity of roles. Without
Black we wouldn't have Tagamet. But with Black
alone, we wouldn't have it either.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Nayak, P.R., and Ketteringham, J.M.,
Breakthroughs, New York: Rawson
Associates, 1986, Chapter 5.
Guerlac, H., Mayer, Julius Robert. Dictionary
of Scientific Biography. Vol. ??, (C.C.
Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.
Black, J., Lectures on the Elements of
Chemistry. J. Robison, ed. Vol. I, General
Doctrines of Chemistry. Part I, General Effects of
Heat. Edinburgh: Mundell and Son, 1803. (See
especially the Preface.)
I'm most grateful to Professor Douglas Eikenburg,
UH Pharmacology Department, for his counsel on this
About the time I wrote this episode in 1993,
Tagamet was just becoming available over the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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