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Biographical entry Vane, Sir John Robert (1927 - 2004)

Kt 1984; FRS 1974; Hon FRCS 1995; BSc Birmingham; DPhil Oxford 1953; DSc 1970; Hon FRCP 1983.

29 March 1927
Tardebigg, Worcestershire, UK
19 November 2004


John Vane shared the Nobel prize in 1982 with Bergström and Samuelsson for discovering how aspirin works, based on the research he had carried out at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences in our College, where he was successively senior lecturer, reader and then professor between 1955 and 1973.

Born on 29 March 1927 in Tardebigg, Worcestershire, he was the son of Maurice Vane and Frances Florence née Fisher. As a boy he blew up the kitchen with a chemistry set, so his father built him a shed in the garden to serve as a laboratory. He read chemistry at Birmingham University, graduating at 19, and then went on to St Catherine's College, Oxford, to read pharmacology, winning the Stothert research fellowship of the Royal Society in 1951.

Between 1951 and 1953 he was assistant professor of pharmacology at Yale, coming back to our College where the head of the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences was William Paton, succeeded by Gustav Born, then both leading pharmacologists of their day. It was at a time when prostaglandins were being discovered, and Vane had a notion that aspirin might work by inhibiting their formation, and went on to show that aspirin and indomethacin did in fact inhibit prostaglandin synthetase. Later he developed the anti-inflammatory drugs which inhibited cyclo-oxygenase-2 (the Cox 2 inhibitors) and captopril, the first of the ACE inhibitors.

In 1973 he left the College to become director of research and development at the Wellcome Foundation, where his research group discovered prostacylin, the agent which dilates blood vessels and prevents platelets from sticking together. He retired from the Wellcome in 1985 to set up a new research establishment, the William Harvey Research Institute at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He retired again in 1995, but continued as the director of the institute's charitable foundation.

He was an inspiring teacher and many young surgeons spent a profitable year under his supervision at the College learning the principles of basic scientific research.

He married Elizabeth Daphne Page in 1948. Basically shy, he was a most agreeable companion. He and Daphne built a house in Virgin Gorda in the Caribbean, where he enjoyed underwater swimming. He died from pneumonia on 19 November 2004, leaving Daphne and their two daughters.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2004 329 1405, with portrait; The Guardian 25 November 2004.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England