James F Riley, Celebrating Dundee's Great and Good

James F RileyJames F Riley is to be honoured in a bronze plaque at the City’s Discovery Walk later this year. Here we look at Dr Riley’s connection to the University and touch upon the impact his research into the mast cell continues to have on society today.

James F Riley was born in Yorkshire in 1912. He came to Scotland to study medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating with honours in 1935. During the Second World War he was an assistant surgeon in the Scottish Emergency Medical Service then served as a Surgical Specialist commanding a mobile surgical unit in the Far East. Having developed an interest in cancer research during the war years, Dr Riley wrote his thesis, ‘Experiments in Carcinogenesis 1939-1944’ on his return to the UK. However, his medical career changed direction mainly due to an ongoing skin condition on his hands which impeded his ability to perform surgery. Dr Riley decided to retrain in radiotherapy which allowed him to experiment with the use of x-rays as a cancer therapy.

By 1948 he was awarded the Diploma on Medical Radiotherapy and was subsequently appointed Consultant Radiotherapist at Dundee Royal Infirmary. In 1950 he became a reader in the Department of Radiotherapy until 1975.  Dr Riley was also appointed a research fellow at the University of Dundee from 1975-1977.

The focus of his research for much of his distinguished career was the study of the mast cell. In 1952 whilst working at D.R.I, Dr RileyJames F Riley, mast cells and Geoffrey B West identified the mast cell granule to be the main source of histamine in the body.  This ground-breaking discovery had a significant impact on the understanding of allergic conditions such as asthma and other inflammatory conditions. Due to the international significance of his work, Dr Riley was appointed as a visiting Professor at the University of Montreal where he was awarded the Claude Bernard medal as well as being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

James F Riley died in 1985. His work some 60 years ago continues to positively impact on how prevalent diseases and respiratory ailments are treated and managed today.

The Archive holds UR-SF 48, the collection of papers relating to Dr Riley’s medical research, correspondence, publications and photographs spanning his career. His family also kindly donated some equipment from his laboratory to the Medical History Museum at Ninewells Hospital.

If you would like more information regarding the James F Riley collection you can search our online catalogue or contact us via email, telephone or in person. ‌