Alan Cowan, 77, of Ambler, a Philadelphia pharmacology professor, and before that a researcher who in his first professional job helped develop a drug that was used to treat opioid addiction, died Tuesday, June 30, at his home.
The cause of his death was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. He had been diagnosed less than a year ago, said his wife, Fiona Forsyth Cowan.
“He was never a complainer,” his wife said. “He sat at his computer at home and still contributed to his department. He was able to keep in touch with the world. In the end, he died peacefully in his sleep.”
Born in Selkirk, Scotland, to Robert Lindsay and Jean Anderson Cowan, he was best known in the area as a professor of pharmacology for 44 years at what is now the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. He was a member of the school’s Center for Substance Abuse Research. He never really retired.
Dr. Cowan received a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from Glasgow University, Scotland, in 1964. He got an advanced degree in pharmacy from the Royal College of Science and Technology, also in 1964, and a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, in 1968. The Royal College was the forerunner of the University of Strathclyde.
From 1971 to 1976, while employed by Reckitt & Colman Ltd. in Britain, he was part of a small research team that developed the drug buprenorphine.
Buprenorphine, a painkiller, was blended with the opiate blocker naloxone so if crushed, liquified, and injected, it would not produce a “high” in the patient. The blend became the first narcotic that could be prescribed by certified American physicians for the treatment of opioid dependence under the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000, according to Rehabs.com, an American Addiction Centers resource.
Marketed as Suboxone, the compound received FDA approval in 2002 and has become a mainstay in the battle against opioid addiction.
Each member of the research team was given the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement, Dr. Cowan’s family said in a statement.
“He got a medal,” his wife said. “He put it in a box and put it away. I found it in a drawer. He was never one to blow his own horn.”
While performing a research study at the Mario Negri Institute in Milan, Italy, Dr. Cowan met Dr. Martin Adler, a Temple University pharmacology professor specializing in the study of drug dependency. Since they shared some research interests, Dr. Adler invited Dr. Cowan to come and work at Temple.
During his career here, Dr. Cowan taught pharmacology to several generations of students in the medicine, dentistry, podiatry, and nursing departments. He continued research on the pharmacology of drug dependency.
He also investigated and published articles on topics such as pain and itch. He and a colleague coedited a handbook titled Pharmacology of Itch.
Known for his quiet, subtle sense of humor, Dr. Cowan was well-liked by students and colleagues. In his spare time, Dr. Cowan enjoyed playing and watching cricket and soccer. He played soccer with Temple medical students until he noticed he was picking up too many bruises from the younger players, his family said.
He was married to Fiona Forsyth Cowan, whom he met while studying at Glasgow. “We met at a dance,” she said. “We both had careers and kept in touch. When he finished his Ph.D., that’s when we got married. He was always sure of his decisions, and I trusted him.”
Besides his wife, Dr. Cowan is survived by his two sons, Christopher and Nicholas, and a brother.
A celebration of his life will be held later at the department of pharmacology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple.