Stewart Adams: Remembering the lab genius who invented Ibuprofen

Ibuprofen inventor Stewart Adams Called as the first speaker on a morning on which he awoke with a hangover, having spent the previous night being toasted in vodka by his hosts, he decided to pop 600mg of his new drug – ibuprofen – in a bid to see if it cured the hangover. It did and it turned out the drug he had spent so long patiently researching sorted out other everyday medical complaints as well, including period and dental pain. But although more than 20,000 tons of the stuff are manufactured every year in the UK, with a packet bought every three seconds in a market worth £2.4billion, the selfeffacing Adams, who was a salaried employee with Boots the chemist, never made any real money out of his painstaking research. Getting the drug approved in the UK and US, countries with the toughest regulatory conditions, was his goal. "For me, that was the most exciting time of all," he once explained. He was a company man disinclined to seek the limelight. In fact, when hailed as the creator of the pain reliever he would insist: "I don’t like to be considered as the inventor. It was a bit like an upturned pyramid really. Rosalind Franklin: Mars rover named after pioneer scientist

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"We start right out at the bottom with myself and one technician, and then as it expands it goes out and more people of all sorts of disciplines and interests come into it."

But the fact remains that for years, Adams, the son of a railwayman, was ferreting away for Boots, finding a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis before discovering some of its other benefits.

He worked from an unconventional lab in a front room at a terraced house in West Bridgford, Nottingham, where he and organic chemist John Nicholson made and tested their concoctions.

Adams had left grammar school at the age of 16 and found counter work at a retail branch of Boots. Despite his lack of ambition, he attracted the attention of senior colleagues.

Today, dispensing is getting a pack and putting a label on it but in the 1940s pharmacy work involved mixing powders and preparing medicines.

"In my day you would be making up mixtures for an individual so it was interesting," he said in 2007. He was then drawn into Boots Pure Drug Company, the scientific side of the business in Nottingham, which sponsored his degree in pharmacy at Nottingham University.

In 1945 he worked on penicillin production, growing the mould from which penicillin is extracted in quart milk bottles – almost a million of them.

Boots wanted him classified as working in a reserved occupation during the Second World War, and instead of being called up he was able to study for a PhD in pharmacology at the University of Leeds. In 1950 he married Mary Harvey, a fellow scientist with Boots.

Family summer holidays with their sons David, who is dean of the University of Nottingham’s medical school and its vice-chancellor, and solicitor Chris, were spent in France in a caravan full of tins of baked beans.

In later life, Adams and his wife travelled the world and enjoyed culture-themed cruises. "He had an endless curiosity for just about anything," said his son, Chris.

On one trip to Washington DC, he discovered evidence that Boots’ laboratories had been on the Nazis’ bombing list, although the Germans had missed their target.

And on a visit to Afghanistan he was thrilled to find remote villages in the Khyber Pass selling ibuprofen.

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