John R. Vane


John R. VaneI was born in Tardebigg, Worcestershire, on the 29th March 1927, one of three children, with an elder sister and brother. My father, Maurice Vane, was a son of immigrants from Russia and my mother, Frances Vane, came from a Worcestershire farming family.

We lived in a suburb of Birmingham where I attended the local state school from the age of five. I then went on to King Edward VI High School in Edgbaston, Birmingham. However, the war was beginning and the whole school was evacuated into the countryside, alongside Repton School in Derbyshire. The expected bombings did not take place, and early in 1940 the school moved back to Birmingham. The air raids then started, and for the next four years, my school and home life were coloured by the trappings of war. With my family, I spent nights in the air-raid shelter at the bottom of the garden and at school we firewatched and trained as (or pretended to be) young soldiers.

At the age of 12, my parents gave me a chemistry set for Christmas and experimentation soon became a consuming passion in my life. At first, I was able to use a Bunsen burner attached to my mother’s gas stove, but the use of the kitchen as a laboratory came to an abrupt end when a minor explosion involving hydrogen sulphide spattered the newly painted decor and changed the colour from blue to dirty green!

Shortly afterwards, my father, who ran a small company making portable buildings, erected a wooden shed for me in the garden, fitted with bench, gas and water. This became my first real laboratory, and my chemical experimentation rapidly expanded into new fields.

At High School I progressed through the pure sciences, and in 1944 it seemed natural to move to the University of Birmingham (which was just across the road from the school) to study Chemistry. However, the enthusiasm with which I had approached experimentation in Chemistry in the garden shed was soon dampened, for at university experimentation was nonexistent. The only unknown in the practical class was the percentage yield in the chemical synthesis involved. It was, I suppose, at this stage that I began to realise that my interest lay not in chemistry but more in experimentation. Thus, when Maurice Stacey, the Professor of Chemistry, asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated, I said “anything but chemistry”. Stacey then told me that he had received a letter that morning from Professor Harold Burn in Oxford asking whether he could recommend another young chemist (he had sent one the previous year) to go to Oxford to be trained in pharmacology. Without hesitation I grasped the opportunity and immediately went to the library to find out what pharmacology was all about! That brief exchange with Stacey reshaped my whole career.

I went to Burn’s department in 1946. I had no biological training of any sort and very little motivation. I found inspiration in working with him and caught his enthusiasm for pharmacology. If anyone can be said to have moulded the subject of pharmacology around the world, it is he. He did this through his particular style of research, through the lucidity of his writings, but most of all through the school which he founded. Young, impressionable scientists from various disciplines and older, less impressionable pharmacologists all came to work with him. His laboratory gradually became the most active and important centre for pharmacological research in the U.K. and the main school for training of young pharmacologists. It was his energy and inspiration that set my career into one of adventure in the fields of bioassay and pharmacology. It was Burn who reinforced for me the essence of experimentation and that is, never to ignore the unusual.

After qualifying for a B.Sc. in pharmacology, I spent a few months in Sheffield University as a research worker in the pharmacology department but then went back to Oxford to the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research in order to study for a D. Phil. with Dr. Geoffrey Dawes. In 1951 I was awarded the Stothert Research Fellowship of The Royal Society and this enabled me to complete my doctorate in 1953. Oxford was also an important milestone for it was there that my wife and I made our first home, and it was there that my daughters Nicola and Miranda were born.

In 1953, we all went to Newhaven, Connecticut where, at the invitation of Dr. Arnold Welch, who was then Chairman, I joined the Department of Pharmacology at Yale University as Assistant Professor in Pharmacology. That was a lively and bustling department, but after 2 years we returned to the U.K, where I started work with Professor W. D. M. Paton at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences of the University of London in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. This was an unusual department, for the teaching was only for graduates, and was not time consuming, thus offering plenty of time for research. I stayed there for 18 years, progressing from Senior Lecturer to Reader to Professor of Experimental Pharmacology. From 1961 to 1973, Professor G. V. R. Born, a close friend from my Oxford days, was the Chairman of the Department and we enjoyed a strong symbiotic relationship, each maintaining an active group of graduate students and research workers. Interestingly, our fields of research endeavour (platelets and prostaglandins) only coalesced in a significant way after we had both moved on.

It was here that I developed, together with my group, the cascade superfusion bioassay technique for measurement of, dynamically and instantaneously, the release and fate of vasoactive hormones in the circulation or in the perfusion fluid of isolated organs. In the mid-1960’s, our attention was focused on prostaglandins, leading in 1971 to the forging of the link between aspirin and the prostaglandins.

In 1973, I was offered the position of Group Research and Development Director for The Wellcome Foundation. In making my decision, I was conscious that Henry Wellcome, seventy years before, had recruited Henry Dale to work in (and soon to direct) the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories, the forerunners of the present Research and Development Directorate. When Henry Dale, then at Cambridge, first received the offer from Wellcome, he hesitated over accepting it. “Friends to whom I mentioned this approach” he said, “were almost unanimous in advising me to have nothing to do with it. I should be selling my scientific soul for a mess of commercial potage”. Nevertheless, he accepted and had no regrets. I also found amongst a few of my friends a resistance to the idea of me entering into industrial science. It was as if to say that good science can only be promulgated in academia. Those friends were wrong; like Dale I accepted and had no regrets. I took with me from the Royal College of Surgeons a nucleus of colleagues, and this has expanded over the last few years into a Prostaglandin Research department under the leadership of Dr. Salvador Moncada. It was in this department that prostacyclin was discovered and its pharmacology developed.


1973 Honorary Member of the Polish Pharmacological Society
1973 Fellow of the Institute of Biology
1974 Fellow of the Royal Society
1977 Walter C. McKenzie Visiting Professorship, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
1978 Honorary Fellowship of the American College of Physicians
1978 Member of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium
1979 Foreign Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences
1979 Visiting Professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A.
1980 Foreign Member of the Polish Academy of Sciences
1982 Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, U.S.A.
1982 Honorary Fellowship of the Swedish Society of Medical Sciences
1983 Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.

Honorary degrees


D. Med. (Hon. Causa) Copernicus Academy of Medicine, Cracow

1978Doctor Hon Causa René Descartes University, Paris


Doctor of Science (Hon. Causa) Mount Sinai Medical School, City University of New York, U.S.A.

1983Doctor of Science, Aberdeen University

Medals, prizes and awards

1977 Baly Medallist of the Royal College of Physicians
1977 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award
1979 Joseph J. Bunim Medal of the American Rheumatism Association
1980 Peter Debye Prize, University of Maastricht, Holland
1980 Nuffield Lecture & Gold Medal, Royal Society of Medicine, England
1980 Feldberg Foundation Prize
1980 Ciba Geigy Drew Award, Drew University, U.S.A.
1981 Dale Medallist, Society for Endocrinology

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1982, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1983

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

John R. Vane died on November 19, 2004.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1982

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