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Sir William Paton

Elected in 2015

Born on 5 May 1917 in Hendon, UK
Died on 17 October 1993 in Oxford, UK


  • Paton was “marked for distinction” at an early age: following his graduation with a first class degree from New College, Oxford, he won gold medals during his clinical training at University College Hospital, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society before the age of 40, and was awarded the Gairdner Foundation International Award at the age of 42
  • He was responsible discovering two new classes of drug that acted on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. His concept of multiple types of nicotinic receptor (only confirmed in the 1970s) formed the basis of the development of:
    • Decamethonium, the first specific neuromuscular blocking drug
    • Hexamethonium, the first drug that specifically and safely lowered blood pressure
  • He discovered a way of preventing the convulsions and sickness associated with deep-sea diving: adding nitrogen to the mixture of oxygen and helium that divers used, which was not an anaesthetic at normal pressures but became an anaesthetic at the high pressures needed for deep dives. This discovery greatly extended the depths that divers could work and was crucial for opening up undersea oil and gas extraction
  • Colleagues at the University of Oxford, where he chaired the Department of Pharmacology for 25 years, described him as “a man in whom were combined a remarkable intellect, great practical skill and a warm personality”
  • A member of the Society for 45 years, he chaired the Editorial Board and Committee of the Society, and left a generous endowment to support its continued activities
  • In 1991, he was awarded the BPS’s highest award, the Wellcome Gold Medal. He happily accepted the medal, but said that he did not need the money, and asked the Council to use it to establish the WDM Paton Historical Research Award, which supports the efforts of anyone who wanted to study some aspect of the history of pharmacology, including ideas, techniques, and equipment used in the development of experimental pharmacology. Read more about the history of the WDM Paton Historical Research Pharmacology Matters.

 Personal life

  • Paton had a special interest in the history of medicine and was Honorary Director of the Wellcome Institute for History of Medicine and chair of the British National Committee for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology
  • His awareness of the social responsibility of science led him to chair the Research Defence Society and to write his last book Man and Mouse: animals in medical research in 1984 (an expanded second edition of which was published shortly before his death)

Published: 19 Nov 2015 in Pharmacology Hall of Fame