In his teens in Auckland, Roger Porsolt was a regular guest on Quiz Kids – a 1950s radio show featuring young brainy swots. The appearances brought him both money and fame and helped finance his move to Europe where, after a rather unglamorous start, he has earned more money and fame.
As well as having a company named after him, there’s also a scientific test with his moniker.
The Porsolt Test, aka the Behavioural Despair Test, involves placing rats in a narrow cylinder of water with no exit. Do they sink or swim?
Says the test’s designer: “If you give those animals anti-anxiety drugs, there’s no effect; the animals may even get slower. Give them an antidepressant and they get more active.” (No animals drown in the process.)
When scientifically described, it is, of course, more complicated than that, but put simply, the Porsolt Test – which its namesake prefers to call the “Forced Swimming Test” – has become an international standard test model for antidepressants in universities and industrial laboratories.
Porsolt sometimes refers to himself as a travelling salesman. It’s a reference to a job he had while a hard-up student in London. But his CV reads otherwise: he is president and principal shareholder (73%) of a Paris-based pharmacological contract research company. His eponymous organisation does work for pharmaceutical and biotech companies the world over. A subsidiary branch opened in Texas last October.
The US expansion could not have been more timely. Porsolt, 67, had just been appointed adjunct professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
It is hard to avoid the alliterative when describing what he does. Porsolt’s particular practice is psychopharmacology. His company’s specialty is the pharmacological effects of new substances on different bodily systems (central nervous system and pain, cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal) in animals.
This extract from his CV is a good illustration – Porsolt has “extensive experience with both rhesus and squirrel monkeys in behavioural models for depression, psychosis, anxiety, aggression and social behaviour”.
He does the rats and mice stuff, too. The subject of his PhD thesis was the effects of purple hearts – a barbiturate/amphetamine mix favoured by the 60s illicit drug scene – on learning and memory in rats.
Porsolt, crisp of dress and delivery and mischievous of demeanour, was a King’s College boy. He graduated from the University of Auckland with an MA in psychology with first-class honours.
He left New Zealand in the mid-60s, and although now a French citizen, he retains his New Zealand passport. “I was always a New Zealander, and I still am. I’m proud to be a New Zealander.”
In a piece penned for a neuropsychopharmacological journal a few years back, he reflected on the role serendipity had played in his career: “I suspect many careers are similarly conditioned by chance, as are the discoveries of many new drugs, despite what is said subsequently.”
His first chance encounter came in London in the 60s. He and his first wife had left New Zealand by boat and spent six months in Europe on their OE. Short of money, and waiting to take up a Commonwealth Scholarship in Canada, Porsolt took up a job selling magnifying screens for television sets. He was 21.
“I moved around London’s poorer suburbs, knocking at doors. That’s where I learnt about salesmanship.”
He loved London so much, he passed up both the Canadian scholarship and the offer of a postgraduate scholarship, which would have seen him continue his studies in New Zealand. Instead, he rang London’s Birkbeck College and – “being a cheeky New Zealander” – asked for a research job. Soon after, he was offered a paid position with two experts who were looking at the area that was to become his forte.
Porsolt’s home on the outskirts of Paris is said to be in one of the toniest parts of France. He also has a holiday home in the south of France. These could not be further from the streets he trod in his door-to-door student days, but the same rules apply.
“The important thing when you’re in a commercial career is that you should make whatever you’re trying to sell attractive, and you should not lie about it. That’s a basic principle of good salesmanship – whether you’re selling television sets or high-level science.”
Chance was to intervene again. After gaining his PhD in London and having a stint with the Sandoz (now Novartis) laboratory in Switzerland, Porsolt went to France where he ended up as a laboratory head in behavioural pharmacology with another large pharmaceutical company. The possibilities were endless and so, it seemed, were the successes.
But then a management restructure saw Porsolt and his co-researcher out of a job. “It was no doubt political, because no clear reasons were given,” wrote Porsolt in the neuropsychopharmacological journal.
Out of work, and desperate to stay in France, he accepted the first post offered to him: working with two technicians in a fledgling contract research company that provided psychopharmacology testing to the French pharmaceutical industry.
“My second big chance was when I was kicked out of my job. At the time it didn’t seem like luck, but looking back, it’s the best thing they could have done for me.”
That was 25 years ago. He’s now the president of the company, which bears his name. There’s a staff of 75 at the Paris HQ – 15 with PhDs – and business is booming. The company conducts contract research for drug companies at the pre-clinical stage. It covers a range of potential drug therapies, including those for ageing, epilepsy and pain. In Texas, they’re using primates to do their own work on drug abuse.
His parents were Jewish war immigrants from Czechoslovakia. They arrived here in 1939; Roger was born in 1943. His architect father, Imric (Imi) Porsolt, taught for many years at the Auckland University School of Architecture, where he is regarded as having had a huge influence on his students. He also designed some beautiful homes.
Although their mother tongue was German, Roger never spoke it until he reached adulthood. These days he’s fluent in English, French and German.
Being the boss means spending less time in the lab. He has been talking about retirement for some time, too. But he can’t keep away from the business – unless he goes on holiday. And even then, he can’t stay keep away from his BlackBerry.
For the record, he’s an animal lover, with two dogs and a cat. Initially, he shied away from involvement in early versions of the behavioural despair tests because they involved dogs. He says, “For behavioural experiments, you have to have a whole animal, but there are ways to minimise suffering.”