Murray Jarvik: Inventor of the nicotine patch

Over the course of his life Murray Jarvik contracted, and survived, a daunting series of illnesses: rheumatic fever, chronic heart problems, polio and even lung cancer – although he never smoked.

His wife, Lissy, however, did so, heavily. It was therefore natural that her husband, one of America's leading psychopharmacologists, should seek to understand her craving; why, in his own words, "people should go to such lengths to burn and inhale some vegetable matter". Not only did he establish that nicotine was largely responsible for the habit but, along with two colleagues, he invented the nicotine patch, one of the most successful devices yet to help people stop smoking.

The son of an impoverished upholsterer, Jarvik was raised in New York City, but then moved to California where he received degrees in medicine and psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Berkeley, and the University of California in San Francisco.

In 1953 he moved back to New York, to Mount Sinai hospital, where he studied the effects of a new psychotropic drug called LSD, invented in the 1940s by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. Jarvik's studies on the subject were among the first ever published – but only later did he discover that the entire project had been financed by the CIA, which was interested in LSD's potential as a truth drug during the Cold War.

It was at Mount Sinai that Jarvik met his wife Lissy, then an intern, but who became a professor of psychiatry at UCLA when the couple moved back to California in 1972, this time for good. By then, however, the focus of Jarvik's research had long since moved on from LSD to smoking, whose danger to health had been spelt out in the US Surgeon General's report of 1964.

His first experiments were with monkeys, whom he taught to inhale smoke, afterwards observing their reactions. The research produced a benchmark paper in 1970, in which Jarvik demonstrated not only that cigarettes were addictive, but that nicotine was the main reason. The task now was to find a way of breaking that addiction.

Along with Jed Rose, one of his students, and Jed's brother Daniel, a doctor, Jarvik conceived the idea of a transdermal patch that allowed nicotine into the body. The theory was in part inspired by the phenomenon of "green tobacco illness" among workers who harvested the crop. It had been deduced that the condition was caused by nicotine absorbed through the skin.

Initially they were barred from using patients for their experiments, so they carried out tests on themselves, placing tobacco on their skin to find out what happened. "Our heart rates increased," Jarvik said later. "Adrenaline began pumping, all the things that happen to smokers." In 1990 they patented the idea to the University of California, which then licensed it to the Swiss company Ciba-Geigy, now Novartis. The first prescription nicotine patch went on sale in 1992, and in 1996 they became available over the counter.

An enthusiastic, sometimes boyish figure, Jarvik was hugely popular among his colleagues and pupils at UCLA, who would refer to him as "the dean of psychopharmacology". But he was above all a scientist. "Murray was always asking, 'Why do people smoke?'," Richard Olmstead, a friend on the faculty, said. "But after answering that question, he kept at it, further generating support and caveats to the proposition." As a faded banner in his office proclaimed, "Nothing is simple."

Rupert Cornwell

Murray Elias Jarvik, pharmacologist: born New York 1 June 1923; married 1954 Lissy Feingold (two sons); died Santa Monica, California 8 May 2008.