Sir John Vane: Improbable beginnings

Sir John Vane and the value of blue-sky thinking

Lisa A. DuBois
Published: December, 2004

Sir John Vane in his lab at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham, southeast of London, in the early 1980s.
Photos courtesy of Professor Rod Flower FRS and The William Harvey Research Institute
Sometimes great discoveries emerge slowly, after decades of trials and errors. At other times, ingenious ideas seem to strike from out of the blue. Such was the case with the Nobel Prize-winning findings by Sir John Vane, who—over the course of a weekend—cracked a 70-year-old mystery about how aspirin relieves pain and inflammation.

Vane’s discovery was the “tipping point,” the culmination of knowledge and technique that led to an immediate explosion in the field of pharmacology, as well as to some of the most exciting medical research going on today. It also proved the value of serendipity and “blue sky” thinking in biomedical research.

“He had an uncanny nose for going after the right kind of scientific problem,” says Philip Needleman, Ph.D., who helped pioneer the current generation of pain relievers. Needleman was one of the first Americans to study under Vane, who died in 2004.

Vane’s entry into science began humbly enough. Born in 1927, the son of businessman who ran a small company making portable buildings, Vane grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham, England. Even in his early childhood he was intrigued by experimentation, and at the age of 12 his parents gave him a junior chemistry set for Christmas.

The gift was not without its costs in terms of a learning curve. One of Vane’s early experiments (involving a makeshift Bunsen burner attached to his mother’s gas stove) exploded, splattering hydrogen sulfide all over the kitchen walls. Shortly thereafter, his father built a shed in the back yard—a suitable distance from the house and complete with gas and water—for young John to use as a laboratory.

Vane eventually went on to the University of Birmingham where he developed an extreme distaste for chemistry. By the time he graduated he realized that it was scientific discovery through experimentation that thrilled him, not academic exercises in theory. As a result he jumped when an opportunity arose for him to study pharmacology at Oxford—even though he had absolutely no biological training at the time. He was hungry to return to the laboratory bench.

Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 > All