Bill Bowman Obituary
The world owes its gratitude to the late Bill Bowman, who passed away at the age of 83, for his invaluable contribution to safe and efficient anaesthesia practices. For the past four decades, anyone who has received a general anaesthetic has Bill to thank for his pioneering role in comprehending the inner workings of muscle-relaxing medications, and devising safer and shorter-lasting alternatives.
Before the use of "paralysis" drugs, patients under anaesthesia would twitch uncontrollably. This could be dangerous while performing surgical procedures on the chest and abdomen, and while inserting a tube into the windpipe to facilitate breathing. In Bill’s early career, this paralysis was achieved using tubocurarine, the active ingredient of curare – a poisonous substance used in poison darts by indigenous South American tribes. Bill analysed the effectiveness of tubocurarine and, with his team, developed three replacement drugs that are now widely used in anaesthesia.
Bill was born in Carlisle, Cumbria, and studied at the city’s grammar school during World War II. He initially wanted to be a Spitfire pilot, but his father, a pharmacist, encouraged him to enrol in the new pharmacy school at London University, which he excelled in, obtaining a first-class degree, and later a PhD in pharmacology.
After serving in the RAF for two years, Bill returned to London University becoming a lecturer and quickly being promoted to a readership. He built a lasting friendship with fellow academic, Mike Rand, with whom he postulated that triethylcholine could relieve the spasm of tetanus. Although the theory was proved correct, the industry did not take up the idea, and over a million people still die each year from this disease. Bill lost touch with Mike after he moved to Strathclyde University, Glasgow in 1966 as professor of pharmacology, intending to stay for only five years but retiring as emeritus professor in 1996.
While working at Strathclyde, Bill collaborated with Roger Buckett, a former PhD student, who was working at the nearby Organon drug company’s research centre in Newhouse. Together, they did most of the preclinical pharmacology testing on a new series of muscle relaxant compounds, including vecuronium and rocuronium, which are widely used by anaesthetists globally. Bill also co-authored the Textbook of Pharmacology with Rand and Geoffrey West.
Bill’s international reputation as a pharmacology expert led to many visiting professorships and external examiner positions at universities across the world. He also served on government committees relating to drug safety and was a member of 18 editorial boards. Bill also acted as dean and vice-principal at Strathclyde but remained passionate about interacting with students and conducting laboratory work.
After retiring, Bill and his second wife, Anne, moved to the coast, where they enjoyed entertaining, horse riding, sailing and hiking. Anne passed away in 2007, and Bill’s health deteriorated after a back operation in 2010, followed by a stroke. He returned home, and he was cared for by his family and caregivers. Bill is survived by his children from his first marriage, Alison and Ewen, as well as four grandchildren.
Bill Bowman was a charming, wise, giving, and kind individual who was adored by his colleagues and respected by academics worldwide. His invaluable contributions to pharmacology and anaesthesia practices have saved countless lives and will continue to benefit future generations.