DPhil Student 1958-61, Graduate Research Worker 1963-96, Departmental Demonstrator 1967-74, University Research Lecturer 1988-96. College Lecturer (1967-96) and Senior Research Fellow (1991-96) at Somerville College.
Hilary Brown MA DPhil first came to the University Laboratory of Physiology in 1958 to undertake her DPhil studies on the electrophysiology of crustacean hearts supervised by Jean Banister. She was specifically investigating the action of the neurosecretory pericardial organs on the working of the crustacean heart. After six months in Oxford during which she learned the new technique of intracellular recording using glass microelectrodes and succeeded in recording from moving heart tissue, she spent most of her DPhil time at the Marine Biological Association’s Laboratory in Plymouth and then, as holder of the Oxford Naples Scholarship, at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples. For her DPhil work she was awarded the Oxford University Rolleston Memorial Prize in 1964.
She worked in London for a year and a half before returning to Oxford in 1963 to work once more in the Banister Lab. She was appointed a Departmental Demonstrator before undertaking a series of research posts supported by the British Heart Foundation. She developed a strong and enduring interest in cardiac pacemaking and worked as part of Professor Denis Noble’s group heading a laboratory where she, together with a succession of talented graduate students and post docs, obtained practical information about the pacemaker mechanisms of the mammalian heart, feeding this data into Professor Noble’s computer simulations of cardiac electrical activity.
Hilary Brown co-authored several landmark papers on pacemaker research. In 1977, she and Susan Noble published ‘Membrane currents underlying activity in frog sinus venosus’ (J. Physiol, volume 271). The work then moved on to the study of rabbit sinoatrial node preparations. ‘How does adrenaline accelerate the heart?’ (Nature, volume 280) co-authored by Hilary Brown, Dario DiFrancesco and Susan Noble was followed by the more extensive study ‘Voltage clamp investigations of membrane currents underlying pacemaker activity in rabbit sino-atrial node’ (J. Physiol, volume 308) by Hilary Brown and Dario DiFrancesco. These papers describe for the first time the hyperpolarization activated inward current, if, a novel and very important pacemaker current, the discovery of which launched a revolution in understanding pacemaker activity. Many years later, further work on the if channel, especially in Dario DiFrancesco’s laboratory in Milan, led to the development of a clinically important drug, ivabradine, which slows the heart without diminishing the strength of the beat. Hilary Brown’s work progressed to the study of pacemaker activity in single sinoatrial node cells and her lab was the first to succeed in isolating sinoatrial cells which retain their natural shape (Denyer and Brown, J.Physiol 428).
Hilary Brown was Chairperson of the Working Group for Cardiac Cellular Electrophysiology of the European Cardiology Society from 1990-94. In 1982, she wrote a major review ‘Electrophysiology of the Sinoatrial Node’ (Physiological Reviews 62). In 1993, she co-authored with Hiroshi Irisawa and Wayne Giles another review ‘Cardiac Pacemaking in the Sinoatrial Node’ (Physiological Reviews 73). With Roland Kozlowski she wrote ‘Physiology and Pharmacology of the Heart’ a book for clinicians as well as physiologists which was published by Blackwell Science in 1997. She retired in 1996.
Read more about Dr Brown's research by downloading her article for the British Society for Cardiovascular Research's Careers in Cardiovascular Research series published in their 1997 Quarterly Bulletin.
© Hilary Brown and Jean Banister in 2010© Hilary with husband Michael Brown, who also worked for the Department for 30 years