LONDON – Nobel Prize-winning pharmacologist James Black, whose breakthrough beta-blocker drugs help treat millions of heart patients and save thousands of lives, has died at age 85, his former university said Monday.

The University of Dundee in Scotland, which Black served as chancellor from 1992 to 2006, said the scientist died Sunday but gave few further details.

Black’s discovery of the drugs propranolol and pronethalol — which work by blocking the body’s own response to stress hormones — in the early 1960s revolutionized how doctors helped heart patients.

Dr. Clyde Yancy, the president of the American Heart Association, said the drugs’ discovery was “one of the few things that really deserves the moniker: ‘Landmark.”‘

“Easily millions of patients have been helped with beta-blocking therapies,” he said, adding that the family of drugs that grew out of Black’s work remain “the standard of care” despite being discovered nearly half a century ago.

Although it’s his work in the field of heart treatments for which he is best known, Black also made significant discoveries in the development of drugs to treat heartburn and ulcers.

He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his achievements in 1988 and was awarded Britain’s Order of Merit — a rare honor bestowed by the queen — in 2000.

Black was the fourth of five children born in to what he described in an autobiographical sketch as “a staunch Baptist home” in Uddingston on the outskirts of the Scottish city of Glasgow.

Saddled with debt after graduation, he spent three years teaching in Singapore, moving to London in 1950 with what he said was “no home, no income of any kind and no prospects whatsoever.” But a chance meeting with an old colleague led to a job with the University of Glasgow Veterinary School, where he said he “slowly learned, like a primitive painter, how to be an effective experimenter.”

It was there that Black explored his interest in how to engineer the body’s reaction to hormones. Convinced by British pharmaceutical chemical company ICI, Black went to work creating beta-blockers during what he would later remember as one of the most exciting periods of his life.


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