Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 727: TAGAMET

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 727.

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 question.

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 nails.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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. pp. 173-183.

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 episode.




About the time I wrote this episode in 1993, non-prescription
Tagamet was just becoming available over the counter.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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