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The WDM Paton Historical Research Award

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Published: 02 Apr 2020
Category: Your Society
By Richard Green, Paul Tizard, Jeffrey Aronson


Sir William DM Paton

Bill Paton, who was knighted in 1979 and was therefore sometimes addressed as Sir William (but never William), was a major figure in British pharmacology and the British Pharmacological Society (BPS). With Eleanor Zaimis, he played a seminal role in the development of ganglion-blocking methonium drugs. He also worked on histamine liberators and undertook studies on the high-pressure neurological syndrome, which led to the development of Trimix, a mixture of helium, oxygen, and nitrogen, which allows divers to work at great depths. He was Professor of Pharmacology in Oxford (1959–84) and took on many other roles, including Chair of the British Journal of Pharmacology (BJP) editorial board and Chair of the BPS Committee. His obituary in the BJP is a fascinating record of a life lived to the full.

In 1991 Bill 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.

Researching a mystery

We recently discovered that the BPS does not currently list all previous winners on its website, an omission that it is in the process of addressing. The award has not been given with strict regularity. This is perhaps because potential investigators have to apply for an award, and in recent years it has been little advertised.

In the Table, we detail all the Paton Award winners we have unearthed, where the lecture was delivered, and any publication that resulted.

The first lecture was given by Tilli [EM] Tansey, a physiologist and medical historian, who described Sir Henry Dale’s laboratory at Mount Vernon Hospital, an excellent choice of subject, as Bill had started his research career in that laboratory in 1944. She showed a short film made by the laboratory staff, which showed a playful side of Bill that few of us had seen. For example, he showed how to get a response on a kymograph trace by a sharp rap on the bench (younger readers will have to ask an elderly pharmacologist what a kymograph is). In 2015, Tilli also received the Physiological Society’s Paton prize.

The BJP labelled Tilli’s review paper the ‘First WDM Paton Memorial Lecture’, an odd choice, as strictly speaking it was the WDM Paton Historical Research Lecture. This may have been because Bill had died in 1994, the year in which her paper was published. In any case this heading stuck for several subsequent reviews. Although second, third, fifth, and seventh lectures can be found in the journal, the fourth and sixth lectures were not published. Following the presentation (and publication) of the seventh lecture, the next two lectures were also not published. The 2008 lecture was published in the BJP but without a subheading, although the fact that it had been funded by the Paton Award was noted in the text.

Eight lectures have been published in our main journals. Fred Lembeck’s 2004 lecture presumably formed the basis of a later publication (Neuropeptides 2008:42(4), 444-53) and David Colquhoun’s 2009 lecture was referred to in the Times Higher Education Supplement (https://www.timeshighereducation. com/news/leading-academic-attacks-tick-box-science-and-politically-correct-quackery/407337.article).  The awards in both 2009 and 2010 were, somewhat surprisingly, given to two historians who were not members of the BPS. The 2009 award went to Professor Robert A Houston from St Andrews University. It funded his research at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, published in his book Punishing the dead? Suicide, lordship and community in Britain, 1500–1830 (Oxford University Press, 2010). The 2010 award to Jane Draycott, a final year PhD student in the Department of Classics at the University of Nottingham, was to research medicine in Egypt during the Roman period. Her results were reported in Pharmacology Matters (Draycott J. Honey and beeswax in medicine and pharmacology in Roman Egypt. Pharmacol Matters, April 2011).

Neither of the next two lectures was published, and the two presentations after that were to audiences who attended focused meetings in Leicester. The most recent lecture was given at a 2019 meeting of the BPS in Dublin, with a repeat performance at that year’s annual meeting of the Society in Edinburgh. The award was given jointly to two members of the Society. For the first time, the lecture was published in the BJCP.

A wide-ranging scope

The scope of the lectures has been wide. Not surprisingly, several lectures focused on the careers of distinguished members of the Society. The work and lives of Henry Dale, Joshua H Burn, Walter E Dixon, John Henry Gaddum, Bill Paton, and John Vane have all been examined. Tony Birmingham’s research revealed the amazing life of Charles Waterton (1782–1865), who spent 20 years travelling back and forth to the Amazonian rain forest, brought back wourali, and experimented with it by injecting it into asses. Wourali is now known as curare and was another of Bill Paton’s research interests. Peter Taberner’s 2007 lecture dealt with pharmacology and postage stamps. The most recent award was given jointly to Richard Green and Jeff Aronson, and in 2019 Richard gave the lecture, in which he reviewed the rise of modern therapeutics as revealed in advertisements for medicinal products in the British Medical Journal.

Valuing our history

As scientists, we should be concerned with the past and informed about it. George Santayana’s famous observation that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ certainly applies to those undertaking experimental work. The oft-repeated advice of Confucius – ‘study the past if you would divine the future’ – also has merit. We recommend reading about the history of pharmacology, as it helps us examine the lives of some of the great pharmacologists and the studies that have made our science and our Society what it is today. Bill Paton recognized this when he proposed that the Society should establish what became the WDM Paton Historical Research Award, and we hope that the Society will continue to give the award the support and prominence it deserves.

We have failed to discover a few details about the WDM Paton Historical Research Award. If anyone has more information, we would be grateful if they would contact us.

Table 1. Lectures and publications resulting from the WDM Paton Historical Research Award

Lecture venue and year
 Lecture title and link to BPS publication (if any)
EM (Tilli) Tansey An F4-vescent episode: Sir Henry Dale's laboratory 1919–1942
Erich Muscholl The evolution of experimental pharmacology as a biological science: the pioneering work of Buchheim and Schmiedeberg
Tony Milton Burn Oxford for a start
Bill Bowman The battle for oblivion: 150 years of pharmacology in anaesthetic practice
Harrogate 1997 Tony Birmingham Waterton and Wouralia
Humphrey Rang Bill Paton, a restless pharmacologist
Alan Cuthbert The man who never was—Walter Ernest Dixon FRS
Birmingham 2000 Sir James Black In Paton’s footsteps
YS (Mick) Bakhle [unknown]
Manchester 2003 Alan North Opiates, opioid peptides and Hans Walter Kosterlitz
Brian Callingham Paton, medicines and the silver image
Fred Lembeck The history of the pioneering peptide: Substance P
John Fozard From cocaine to chemotherapy: the discovery and therapeutic exploitation of selective 5-HT3 receptor antagonists
Peter Taberner Pharmacology experienced through philately
Richard Green Gaddum and LSD: the birth and growth of experimental and clinical neuropharmacology research on 5-HT in the UK
Edinburgh 2009 David Colquhoun The past present and future of pharmacology: successes, failures and threats from managerialism and quackery
2009 Robert Houston Grant for research at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles
2010 Jane Draycott Grant to study medicine in Roman Egypt in the period 30 BC – AD 395
Rod Flower John Vane, pharmacologist
Nick Goulding A history of the glucocorticoids – a stressful tale
5th Focused Meeting on Cell Signalling, Leicester, 2014 Morley Hollenberg Proteinases, their receptors and inflammatory signalling: the South Parks Road connection
6th Focused Meeting on Cell Signalling, Leicester, 2016 Michel Bouvier Molecular and structural determinants of GPCR signalling - pluri-dimensionality under the light of BRET
Edinburgh 2019 Richard Green [with Jeff Aronson] How doctors were informed about pharmaceutical products through advertising in the British Medical Journal from 1955/6 to 1985/6


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Published: 02 Apr 2020
Category: Your Society
By Richard Green, Paul Tizard, Jeffrey Aronson

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