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‘If not duffers won’t drown’

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29/06/2012

By | From the Collections

We are pleased to announce that the papers of Roger E  C Altounyan (1922-1987) have now been catalogued and are available for research.

Roger Altounyan was a member of a distinguished Anglo-Armenian medical dynasty. His grandfather, born in Turkey, undertook medical education in the USA and Germany in the early twentieth century and founded a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. His son Ernest took over the running of this hospital and after qualifying in medicine Roger Altounyan worked there for a few years until changes in the political situation meant the family had to leave in 1955. There is a little material about this family background in PP/RCA/A.1/1.

During his childhood, the family enjoyed a sailing holiday in the Lake District with Arthur Ransome, a friend of his mother’s family, an association which led Ransome to write the much-loved children’s classic Swallows and Amazons and its sequels, in which Ship’s Boy Roger Walker was based on Roger Altounyan, who remained very keen on small boat sailing in later life.

After education at Abbotsholme School (where he suffered from severe eczema), Roger Altounyan returned to Aleppo in 1939, and on the outbreak of World War II joined the RAF. He became a bomber pilot with particular responsibility for the development of low-level night flying procedures, and received the Air Force Cross in 1945. He then studied medicine at Cambridge and the Middlesex Hospital, qualifying in 1952, when he returned to Aleppo. After the family had to leave, he returned to England and found a job working for Bengers, a subsidiary of Fisons Pharmaceuticals and subsequently absorbed by them. He also undertook clinics in the chest departments of Manchester hospitals.

Altounyan had developed asthma while a medical student and was particularly interested in finding a remedy.  In order to examine the effects of various substances in a human subject he would induce attacks in order to record his response. The collection includes a substantial series of spirometer readings he took of these experiments using the equipment illustrated, recently part on an exhibition at the US National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland on the history of asthma.

This led to the development of Intal (disodium cromoglycate) from a Middle Eastern folk remedy, Khellin. Although Altounyan and his colleagues were told to stop pursuing the line of research they had begun, they continued this in secret with such success that Intal was passed through the necessary processes of approval and put into production with unusual alacrity.
This collection is particularly strong on Altounyan’s work on Intal and other products during his period at Fisons; it also reflects his increasing international profile, in a series of files relating to talks and lectures given at a geographically broad range of venues. There is also a substantial amount of correspondence with colleagues as well as some material on working at Fisons generally.

His daring yet careful and responsible risk-taking in the interests of advancing understanding of asthma and its relief recalls the famous telegram that opens the action of Swallows and Amazons: ‘Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown’.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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