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