To hear more of James Black’s stories, go to the playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T40sQxRoDwA&list=PLVV0r6CmEsFxj8rsp51ptesTyqLBftzPD
The late Scottish pharmacologist Sir James W Black (1924-2010) revolutionised medical treatment of hypertension and angina with his invention of propranolol, the first ever beta blocker. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1998. [Listener: William Duncan]
TRANSCRIPT: I've been a... fan of The New York Review of Books for many years. And, I remember one review of the novel Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, and it was being reviewed by another novelist, Hilary Mantel, and the book is about recollections. And Mantel says: 'Perhaps there's no such thing as memory, only the act of remembering. Perhaps remembering is not about recollection but about reconstruction.' And I... well, the problems of this kind of thing I'm going through now is: am I recollecting or reconstructing? And I guess I'm doing a bit of both. So let's start, I suppose, at the beginning. Everybody likes to go back to their family. My father was... well, he left school at 14 and went down the mines, and evenings he went to classes and turned himself into a mining engineer. So, by the time I was around, he was already a colliery manager. But I grew up in a mining community with this hardworking dad. He had five boys. I was number four. My dear mother was a staunch Baptist and she looked after not just our physical welfare but our spiritual welfare as well. So, Sunday was a 5 mile walk, both ways, twice, to go to services in the morning and the evening.
So I grew up, then, in a stable family and went to Local Authority schools in the village, so Auchterderran Primary School – still there. Then, when I was 10 or 11, I went to what was then called Cowdenbeath Secondary School. It became fashionable later on and changed its name to Beath High School, but in my days it was Cowdenbeath Secondary School. Cowdenbeath now has a... quite a useful football team, but essentially it was a centre of a mining community. And the thing about mining communities is they have a passion for education. They just don't want their sons to go down the pits where they were. And so these schools all had terrific teachers, and I remember, you know, many of my teachers, particularly at secondary school. One I particularly remember called Waterson... Dr Waterson... you met him, of course, in Dunfermline, I think.
[WD] No, I wasn't there.
[WD] I met him through Janet.
Oh, is that right? That's right, yes, yes. He was a mathematician, and... as a school teacher he got a PhD from working out how it was that Briggs managed to calculate his logs to the base 10, to something like seven decimal places, and no one knew how he did it, but Dr Waterson figured it out. He got his PhD from that. And then he got his DSc later on for... studying Viète, who showed... he showed that Viète... in fact discovered De Moivre's theorem 100 years before De Moivre was born, but he had used algebra... I beg your pardon, geometry rather than algebra. So, that was the kind of atmosphere, and he used to let me see the Latin texts and so on that he used. Anyway, he gave me a book to work through. It was called Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P Thompson. It had answers at the back and I worked my way through it, at my own speed, and then I got an answer different from the... I was about two thirds of the way through. It was an integral problem. And Dr Waterson sat down beside me and he got the same answer as me, and he said, without hesitation: 'The book's wrong; I can do calculus as well as Silvanus P Thompson'. And I remember thinking: how can anybody have the confidence to say: 'The book's wrong'? Anyway, that was the kind of thing, but essentially the thing I remembered him for – I suppose I have to be grateful to him – was as a youth up until now I – and still... I still do, I suppose – I'm a self confessed daydreamer, and I daydreamed my way through school, and I never thought about what I was going to be doing after school, but he persuaded me to sit the entrance examination at St Andrews. It was competitive. And I did, and then I was asked for an interview, and that was scary because this was in the Senate room at St Andrews. And it was a long table like this, with windows, so I was sitting here against... they were a lot of shapes, black, against the light, and Sir James Irvine, the Principal – a very smooth man – and I had this interview. And, anyway, I won a residential scholarship: the Patrick Hamilton Residential Scholarship. Now, I didn't know, until then, my elder three brothers had gone to university – to St Andrews, in fact – and I didn't realise that if I had wanted to go to university I wouldn't have been able to because my dad couldn't have afforded it, so it was lucky that I got the scholarship.