Roger Altounyan: Personal recollections of a medical pioneer

My interest in Roger Altounyan began in the late 1970s, during a two-hour car journey as we drove back to Manchester from a conference in Nottingham on innovation processes.

This account adds a human dimension to his discovery of Intal that has benefited millions of Asthma sufferers around the world

Altounyan was already an internationally-known figure. I was a young Business School teaching fellow at the conference. We found we could conveniently share a car together back to South Manchester. I can’t even be sure who was driving, but I can remember it was Altounyan who did most of the talking.

His story was one which I foolishly never wrote down in full, although I used my notes on numerous lectures to illustrate the creative process within a medical case example. In reconstructing that experience recently, I found I had access to information not found in documented accounts of his most celebrated medical innovation.

A rekindled interest

My interest had been rekindled by a public debate initiated by colleagues at Manchester Business School [May, 2015] celebrating the great original thinkers from (or located in) the North West of England. Figures such as Joule, Darwin, and Turing were nominated.

I wondered whether anyone would propose Altounyan, and started a search for background information about his achievements.

The background story

Roger Edward Collingwood Altounyan (1922–1987) came from an Anglo-Armenian family which had relocated to the Lake District in The United Kingdom in the 1920s.

Biographic accounts refer to the unusual circumstances when as a small boy he was transformed into the fictional Roger Walker by the author and family friend Arthur Ransome, in his book Swallows and Amazons, which was later was turned into a successful film.

He subsequently had a distinguished war-time career in the Royal Air Force, before studying medicine and starting his pioneering medical research.

He is remembered primarily for the discovery and development of sodium cromoglycate, (Intal) as well as its ingenious ‘spinhaler’ delivery system, an innovative and effective DPI [Dry Powder Inhaler} treatment for Asthma.
The corporate video of the invention of Intal offers insights into the personality and creative working processes of Roger Altounyan

Altounyan remembered

Altounyan told me of his visiting position at the Royal Manchester University Hospital where he specialized in treating respiratory cases. He gave the impression of someone frustrated by being repeatedly deprived of resources, saying that he was forced to treat his patients in the corridors of a ward in the hospital.

His self-administered experiments would no longer be tolerated as acceptable medical practice. Nevertheless, for a period of years working at Fisons’ Holmes Chapel site, he continued his work.

This where the reported accounts deviated from his own version of what happened. He claimed that he was discouraged from continuing his work. So much so that he was eventually banned from the laboratories. Undeterred, he explained to me, he would return to Holmes Chapel at night and with some collusion was able to carry on his research. After a change of manager, he was reinstated, and the work continued with more formal acceptance.

My impression now is of a highly charismatic individual, someone uninhibited by conventional rules and regulations. It would be likely that he was a difficult person to manage and who created enemies through his single-minded and obsessive behaviours.

Notes a for creativity workshop

One widely-accepted model suggests four interacting factors of person, process, product and press (environment) are required to model creativity. Can you see how these four factors might be involved in this case study?

Another important theory developed by Professor Teresa Amabile at Harvard considers creativity to be largely motivated by intrinsic forces rather than economic ones. How might Altounyan’s career support his proposition? Can you suggest factors which make creative individuals difficult to manage?

What might be done to address these difficulties?

References

Paré, P.D., & Bai, T.R. (1995) ‘Altounyan address: The consequences of chronic allergic inflammation’ Thorax, pp 328-332, see also http://thorax.bmj.com/content/50/4/328.full.pdf

Altounyan, R.E.C., (1987) ‘Inhibition of experimental asthma by a new compound – disodium cromoglycate “Intal” ‘ Acta Allergol, 22:487

Acknowledgement

To Robert Slinn, a chemist and blogger, who worked at the Holmes Chapel R&D laboratories, for guiding my literature search.

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2 Responses to Roger Altounyan: Personal recollections of a medical pioneer

  1. Barbara Altounyan says:

    I am Roger Altounyan’s daughter Barbara. Please may I speak to you. When you have time please find me via google The Audio Biographer

  2. Lance Shippey says:

    I consider myself extremely fortunate to say, for a brief time l knew
    Peter, and his wife, Hella. The Altounyan family changed the
    direction of my life.Working for B.E.A. S1-11 division at Manchester
    airport, and half the fleet of aircraft being based at Templehof, in
    West Berlin, Hella approached my mother, to ask if l would like to
    learn german.
    After two years of one to one tuition, my written and spoken german was to standard, that Lufthansa offered me a position at
    their Frankfurt base.During the twice weekly lessons at the Altounyan home in Wilmslow, l remember with great affection an
    evening in the early 70’s when Peter arrived home with his new
    Wolseley 1800 car, giving me the key, asked me to drive it, and
    tell him what l thought.
    My new life in Germany brought stress and security in equal measure, and l decided to drive overland from Frankfurt to Calcutta, and then by ferry and driving, through South east Asia to Sydney Roger heard on my proposed journey, and at one of his
    wine tasting evenings, presented me with medical supplies for my
    long drive east.
    Having left Tehran on route 44 in the direction of Afghanistan, and
    several miles west of Mashhad, a fully loaded coach overtook my
    slower Citroen Dyane 4, however the coach driver failed to take a
    bend in the road, As dust settled, it became clear that the coach
    had fallen into the rough terrain, throwing the passengers around
    as it overturned. The majority of the 40+ passengers were dead,
    but those that survived, would receive assistance from the medical
    supplies that Peter had kindly given me.
    l, like Peter, had a love of flying and on settling in Sydney for a time,
    l learnt to fly.
    Peter’s contribution to medicine, and flying, especially during WW2
    have never been truly recognised. It is unfortunate that Peter, and
    Alan Turing [also a resident of Wilmslow] had never received due
    acknowledgement during their lives.

    Lance Shippey.

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