Arnold Burgen

In Memoriam Professor Sir Arnold Burgen FRS MAE (1922-2022)#

It is with profound sadness that the Board of Trustees of the Academia Europaea wish to announce the recent death of Professor Sir Arnold Burgen FRS MAE FRS MAE, our founding President and praesis perpetua honoris causa.

Professor Sir Arnold Burgen FRS MAE (1922-2022)#

We were greatly saddened to learn of the death of Professor Sir Arnold Burgen FRS MAE, physician, physiologist, pharmacologist, academic and university administrator, shortly after he celebrated his 100th birthday. Arnold Burgen was born in London, his father was a laboratory assistant, and he grew up in north London where he attended the grammar school, Christ's College Finchley. In 1939 he entered Middlesex Hospital Medical School, and in 1945 graduated in Medicine and became an Assistant Lecturer in Pharmacology starting research on the secretion and action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which became his main area of research.

In 1939 he entered Middlesex Hospital Medical School, and in 1945 graduated in Medicine and became an Assistant Lecturer in Pharmacology starting research on the secretion and action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which became his main area of research.

In 1949 Arnold Burgen went to McGill University, Montreal as a Professor of Physiology and later became head of research at one of the University teaching hospitals. Returning to England in 1962 as Sheild Professor of Pharmacology in Cambridge and a Fellow of Downing College, he became Director of the MRC Molecular Pharmacology Unit in Cambridge in 1966. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1964 and became Director of the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in 1971. In 1976 he was Knighted for services to medical research and was Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society from 1981 till 1986. He was elected Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 1984 and Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1988.

In 1982 he was elected Master of Darwin College, Cambridge where he started the distinguished series of Darwin Lectures. He became Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1985–89 and in 1988 he was the founding President of Academia Europaea which he regarded as one of his best contributions to the scientific endeavour. He was the founder and first Editor of its European Review and published several articles in the journal, including a typically insightful review of an Academia Europaea conference on calcium signalling (2002) held at the Tschira Foundation in Heidelberg and an important account of the origin and early days of Academia Europaea (2009). He was a generous supporter of younger generations, and his wise insights and advice were in demand by national and international organisations in science recognised by numerous awards and honorary degrees.

Notably a person of great modesty and critical analysis, his writings were mainly in pharmacology and physiology and aspects of medicines. His research on regulatory mechanisms in the body was principally concerned with one in the nervous system that uses a small molecule, acetylcholine. A substantial part of his research dealt with the mechanism of action of acetylcholine in many different cell types. During his years in Montreal, he produced outstanding work, mostly published in the Journal of Physiology, on the action of acetylcholine on the heart and the salivary glands. His 1953 paper on the negative inotropic effect of acetylcholine on the heart, a crucially important physiological process, is a model of clarity and contains data that are still highly relevant for contemporary physiology. Much of Arnold Burgen’s work in Montreal was concerned with the process of salivary secretion stimulated by acetylcholine. One of his finest contributions is the single-author 1956 article in the Journal of Physiology on “The secretion of potassium in saliva”. This is a complete and quantitative analysis of the movement of potassium ions between blood, salivary gland cells and saliva, which has stood the test of time. Specifically, it has been confirmed and expanded by the direct recording of single-channel currents through potassium-selective channels that became feasible in 1983 and is now seen as forming the basis for our understanding of the initiation of salivary secretion by the action of acetylcholine.

Arnold Burgen regarded the salivary glands as particularly useful models of physiological machinery and therefore devoted much of his enormous energy to understanding how they worked. His wonderful book on the “Physiology of the Salivary Glands”, written for the Physiological Society’s series of monographs and published in 1961, continues to be an important starting point for anyone interested in this topic. He continued to take a lively interest in this subject matter, even many years after having moved to other fields, and frequently chaired and introduced conferences on glandular secretion, including an important Royal Society Discussion meeting on ‘The Control of Secretion’ in 1981. In his later active years, after his return to the UK, he was trying to understand the general recognition processes that determine the potency and specificity of drug action but, again, with a particular focus on acetylcholine. The development of molecular biology expanded his discoveries by making it possible to grow receptors in bacteria, modify them by mutations and to study their detailed structure. This has provided the possibility of testing substances for drug action rapidly and on a large scale, and in the latter years of his life he watched with sharp attention the remarkable progress in combatting the coronavirus pandemic, hoping that one day treatment might consist of a small molecule that aligned with his early love of pharmacology.

Arnold Burgen married Judith Browne in 1945 and after her decease, the crystallographer Olga Kennard FRS. He has two children.

Professors Ole Petersen (Founder member and trustee and Academic Director of the Cardiff Hub) and Brian Heap (former Chair of the Board of trustees)
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