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Vane, Sir John Robert (1927-2004)

  • Vane, John R.
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


The collection relates predominantly to Vane's scientific career up to the point at which he joined the Wellcome Foundation in 1973. It includes many of his experiment notebooks, test results, experimental photgraphs and published papers from his academic days in the 1950's and during his pharmacology career at the Royal College of Surgeons from 1955 to 1973. His work during this time led up to and formed a basis for his work in the early 1970's on the mechanism by which aspirin worked .

Papers, lecture notes and experiment results from his university career at Birmingham, Oxford and Yale can be found in section A. However, the bulk of the material can be found in section B, his experiment results, and section C, his published papers from the 1960's and early 1970's. The published papers usually include early drafts as well as near final versions of articles which were usually written in collboration with other researchers.

Vane kept almost all of his personal correspondence. However, section D covers some of his communications with the British Pharmacological Society where he was the General Secretary in the early 1970's and the correspondence continues with his successors in that post through the late 1970's (Vane was often consulted on issues relevant to the B.P.S). These papers, predominantly correspondence to Vane, give more of a hint of the character of the individual and his views.

Section E includes lectures notes for a series of pharmacology lectures given predominantly by Vane during his time at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Section F is a small section of documents that do not sit naturally with his other papers. Papers include; experiment procedures from Squibb where Vane was a consultant in the late 1960's and early 1970's; published articles on Oblivon; a vitamin manual from 1953, further printed articles; and an assortment of notes.



Physical description

28 boxes



The arrangement of the papers is as follows;

Section A: Education and Academic Career

A/1 Birmingham University

A/2 Oxford University

A/3 Yale University

Section B: Experiment Results

B/1 Oxford University

B/2 Yale University

B/3 Royal College of Surgeons. 1955 to 1960

B/4 Royal College of Surgeons. 1960 to 1971

B/5 Royal College of Surgeons. Experiment Photographs and Graphs

Section C: Published Reseach Papers

C/1 Published from 1962 to 1965

C/2 Published from 1966 to 1967

C/3 Published from 1968 to 1969

C/4 Published in 1970

C/5 Published in 1971

C/6 Published in 1972

C/7 Published in 1973

C/8 Publication Schedule Cards

Section D: Correspondence - British Pharmacological Society

D/1 General Correspondence

D/2 Gaddum Lectureship Prize Correspondence

D/3 Correspondence as Foreign Secretary of the B.P.S.

Section E: Lectures - The Royal College of Surgeons

Section F: Miscellaneous Papers and Audio Material

Acquisition note

The papers were given to the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre of the Wellcome Institute (now Archives and Manuscripts, Wellcome Library) in 1985 by Wellcome Research Laboratories, Beckenham. Sir John Vane had joined, what was then, the Wellcome Foundation in 1973 as the Director of Research and Development and remained there until 1986. Sir John Vane retained his personal papers and were not part of the donation from Wellcome Research.

Biographical note

Sir John Robert Vane (1927-2004), pharmacologist, was born on 29 March 1927 at Ivydene, Hollywood Lane, Wythall, Worcestershire, the third child of Maurice Vane, builder, and his wife, Frances Florence, née Fisher. His father was the son of Russian immigrants while his mother was from a Worcestershire farming family. He attended elementary school locally, and subsequently King Edward VI School, Birmingham. At King Edward VI School he pursued his interest in science, after which 'it seemed natural to move to the University of Birmingham (which was just across the road from the school) to study chemistry'. This he did, and graduated BSc in 1946.

Vane had no biological expertise at all, and in later life he maintained that he became a pharmacologist entirely by accident. Being a confirmed experimentalist by nature he found the actual practice of chemistry, with its emphasis on reaction yield and product purity, rather tedious, but while discussing this issue with his head of department, Maurice Stacey, he learned that Harold Burn in Oxford was seeking graduates to be trained in pharmacology. He later wrote: 'without hesitation I grasped the opportunity and immediately went to the library to find out what pharmacology was all about!'.

Despite this unexpected start he found the study of experimental pharmacology, as practised by Burn, to be fulfilling in a way that chemistry was not. After graduating BSc in pharmacology at Oxford in 1949 he spent a year as a researcher in the pharmacology department at Sheffield University. While at a British Pharmacological Society meeting he met up with an old Oxford friend, Geoffrey Dawes, and inquired about the possibility of joining him in the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research. Dawes joked about needing someone to clean the glassware and offered him a postgraduate place. In 1953 Vane was duly awarded a DPhil. While in Oxford he had met (Elizabeth) Daphne Page, a domestic science teacher three years older than him. She was the daughter of Jackson Page, schoolmaster. They married at Lyndhurst Road Congregationalist Chapel, Hampstead, on 5 April 1949, and had two daughters, Nicola and Miranda.

At that time it was common for newly qualified postdoctoral scientists to gain experience in the USA, and Vane was invited by Arnold Welch to join the department of pharmacology at Yale as an assistant professor. Two years later, in 1955, he returned to the UK and joined W. D. M. (Bill) Paton's department of pharmacology at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, originally sited in Queen's Square in London, but subsequently relocated to the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In 1960 Paton was succeeded by Gustav (Gus) Born, a friend of Vane's from his Oxford days. Vane rose quickly through the academic hierarchy, becoming a reader in 1961 and gaining a personal chair in 1966. The department trained many students from the UK and abroad, a large proportion of whom went on to achieve prominence in their own fields. It was within this friendly and intellectually stimulating environment that Vane perfected his signature bio-assay system which enabled him to measure, with astonishing rapidity and specificity, the levels of many blood hormones simultaneously.

During his time at the Royal College of Surgeons Vane made two major breakthroughs. Working with Sergio Ferreira, Y. S. Bakhle, K. K. F. Ng, and others, he performed the crucial experimental work demonstrating that inhibition of the generation of the hormone angiotensin II would be a useful therapy for hypertension. At the time he was a consultant for Squibb in the USA where Welch was research director. Welch backed Vane's idea and the result was the development of the ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors, a class of drugs which revolutionized the treatment of hypertension. A few years later, in 1971, Vane executed what is generally regarded as his finest piece of experimental work. Aspirin was a useful analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic drug (and indeed prototype of an entire class of similar medicines) of unknown mechanism of action, that dated back to the 1890s. While writing a review on the release of mediators from the lung one weekend Vane conceived the notion that it worked by inhibiting the generation of prostaglandins, a family of hormones known to be important in initiating inflammation, fever, and pain. He turned again to his bio-assay system for the wherewithal to test this idea, and within a few days was confident that this indeed was the mechanism that had so long eluded the pharmacological community. This concept, which he further developed with Ferreira, Salvador Moncada, and R. J. (Rod) Flower, had a profound influence on the development of future anti-inflammatory drugs as well as resolving a long-standing pharmacological enigma.

The year 1973 saw a change in Vane's circumstances, with the break-up of the Royal College of Surgeons group. Born had accepted the offer of the chair of pharmacology in Cambridge and Vane was offered the position of group research and development director of the Wellcome Foundation. Although he now had little time for laboratory work as such, he continued to influence research directly through his personal 'prostaglandin research group', which he started, bringing several of his old colleagues from the Royal College of Surgeons and encouraging them to 'follow their instincts' in the quest for new drugs. Moncada, Richard Gryglewski, and Stuart Bunting from this group soon discovered prostacyclin, a short-lived hormone of the prostaglandin family that dilates blood vessels and prevents platelet aggregation. A chemical derivative was later commercialized for the treatment of pulmonary hypertension. During Vane's term as research and development director Wellcome produced several other important drugs, including anti-viral agents, anti-gout drugs, and muscle relaxants.

Vane's own work was by then widely acclaimed. He had been made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, shortly after his move to the Wellcome Foundation, and a series of high-profile international awards followed, among them the Albert Lasker basic medical research award in 1977. In 1982 he won the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine, together with Bengt Samuelsson and Sune Bergström, for his work on the prostaglandin field. He was knighted in the new year's honours list of 1984, for services to pharmaceutical science. Over fifty honorary degrees and fellowships followed over the years.

Vane left the Wellcome Foundation in 1986. An invitation to set up a laboratory on the Charterhouse Square campus of St Bartholomew's Hospital medical school, coupled with some start-up funding from Glaxo Group Research, provided him with a new opportunity. He invited teams headed by Born, Flower, Erik Änggård, Iain MacIntyre, Brendan Whittle, Derek Willoughby, and David Tomlinson to join him and to establish a 'federation' of (mainly self-funded) scientists devoted to research into inflammation and cardiovascular disease. His vision culminated in the formation in 1991 of the William Harvey Research Institute as a separate, free-standing medical charity within the medical college. Expansion was facilitated by major funding from Ono Pharmaceuticals in Japan and in time the institute employed some 120 people, and 'spun off' a small commercial company and conference organization. Although rarely doing laboratory work himself during this period, Vane, working with a new generation of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, focused his interests on hormones influencing the heart and blood vessels as well as the pharmacology of the COX-2 inhibitors. He retired as full-time director in 1995 but still maintained his office in the institute and continued to influence the course of research and to direct young people. Following the merger of the institute with the medical college in 2000 he took over the role of honorary chairman of the charitable William Harvey Research Foundation.

In 1992 he underwent heart surgery and made an excellent recovery, but a further procedure in 2002 took its toll. An unlucky fall resulting in a fractured hip together with subsequent complications confined him to his bed. He died peacefully at the Princess Royal University Hospital, Farnborough, on 19 November 2004, of pneumonia. He was survived by his wife and daughters.

Terms of use

This collection has been catalogued and is available to library members. Some items have access restrictions which are explained in the item-level catalogue records.

Ownership note

4 reel tapes recording a CIBA symposium 1960 in the Vane papers were transferred to the Moving Images and Sound Collection, during cataloguing of the collection in March 2010. The tapes are to be digitized.

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