R P ('Steve') Stephenson

Elected in 2016

Born on 17 September 1925 in Milnsbridge, UK
Died on 24 April 2004 in Edinburgh, UK


  • Best known for his commitment to receptor theory, Steve's ground breaking paper in 1956, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, was based on a study of the action of acetylcholine analogues on isolated tissues and introduced two novel concepts: spare receptors and efficacy. He proposed that the parameter, efficacy, determined the link between the “strength” of a single drug-receptor complex and the size of the response.
  • He attended Royd’s Hall Grammar School and went on to read Chemistry at the University of Birmingham. After graduation he spent a year in the Department of Pharmacology in Oxford testing substitutes for coal tar as starting materials for the chemical industry.
  • In 1949 he was appointed to a Lectureship in the University of Edinburgh, in one of the few departments of Pharmacology in Britain, where he stayed until his retirement in 1987.
  • His 1956 paper had enormous impact and was cited by Sir James Black as being “very useful” when he was developing ß-blockers, and it was rumoured that Sir David Jack informed new Glaxo recruits that it was the most important paper published this century.
  • Importantly, Steve’s work enhanced the credibility of the age-old use of parallel log-dose response curves and the terms agonist and partial agonist.
  • He was very active in the British Pharmacological Society. He joined in 1949 and was a member of the committee from 1966 to 1969. He was elected to Treasurer from 1971 to 1975 and subsequently became a Trustee of the Society from 1983 to 1993. In 1994 he was elected to Honorary Membership.

Personal life

  • Steve was born in Huddersfield where his father was a weaver in a local mill
  • His wife, Jill, said of Steve at his memorial that he “had few pretensions, no personal ambition and neither the ability nor the inclination to dissemble. He really did epitomise the old saying about computers, ‘what you see is what you get’.”

Published: 02 Jun 2016 in Pharmacology Hall of Fame