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A Life in the Laboratory


Dr Adams 1950s filter

The next time you wake up feeling the worse for wear and swallow a couple of ibuprofen, reflect on the fact that the conception of this now humdrum painkiller was anything but.

Both the childhood of Dr Stewart Adams, our legendary pharmacologist who passed away last month at the age of 95, and the chain of events that led him to discover the life-changing properties of ibuprofen could have followed a wholly different path.

He was born in a small Northamptonshire village, the son of a railwayman and train driver. This resulted in a nomadic childhood, living later in Doncaster and then March in Cambridgeshire.

Like many of us Dr Adams reached the age of 16 unsure of what to do next. Despite having been offered a place at March Grammar School, and having an interest in both history and politics, as well as biological science, he turned down the opportunity. This was the decision which ultimately led to his lifelong association with Nottingham, as his aunt subsequently helped him secure a three-year apprenticeship at a branch of Boots.

Despite the realisation that retail pharmacy was not for him, Dr Adams’ interest in medicine and natural drugs had been kindled. Boots recognised this, sponsoring his BPharm at what was then University College, Nottingham. Following graduation he then secured a PhD from Leeds University, and so began a lifetime of research.

It began, perhaps idiosyncratically, in the front room of an unremarkable terraced house in West Bridgford in the 1950s. This was the result of WWII bombing raids over the city, as the Luftwaffe had been targeting Boots’ own laboratories, with some staff being relocated to lessen any potential threat.

Yet in these humble surrounds he and his colleagues spent the next seven years looking for what was originally intended to be a new treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Over time it became apparent that the focus of their research was in fact a lower-risk version of aspirin, which at the time was the most commonly used painkiller but was falling out of favour due to its deleterious side-effects.

After four unsuccessful clinical trials, what became ibuprofen passed successfully on its fifth in 1966, and then followed the now infamous self-test carried out by Dr Adams. On the day he was due to speak at a conference in the former USSR in 1971 he awoke with a hangover following a night of being toasted with vodka. He took 600mg of ibuprofen – and the rest is history!

The legacy is incalculable, but some figures perhaps begin to illustrate it nonetheless; an estimated 20,000 tonnes of ibuprofen is now manufactured annually, with sales in the USA alone worth several billion dollars. For Boots itself it was a game-changer too, helping the company expand globally.

Despite this Dr Adams was incredibly self-effacing and modest, repeatedly stating in interviews that he gained pleasure merely from having created the drug and in doing so helping countless people around the world. He certainly did not profit financially as one might expect, living in the same house for the best part of 60 years.

Dr Adams continued to work for Boots until the early 1980s and then continued as a part-time consultant. He was also fond of sport locally, with membership at both Trent Bridge and a season ticket with Nottingham Forest.

In an interview he cited his honorary degree from the University (in 2008) as his proudest scientific moment, and thanks to the generosity of his time generations of students and scientists have been fortunate to benefit from his wisdom.

Whilst his success in creating ibuprofen is his wonderful legacy, his resilience in bouncing back from his earlier failures is a lesson we can all abide by. As a quote from his scientific hero Louis Pasteur says: “Luck favours only the prepared mind.”

Dr Stewart Adams OBE was born on April 16, 1923. He died on January 30, 2019, aged 95.

Posted on Thursday 21st February 2019

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