Altounyan was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1922. He grew up in Coniston, where Arthur Ransome was a regular visitor, and based the children in Swallows and Amazons on Roger and his siblings. Altounyan studied medicine at Cambridge and the Middlesex Hospital, before joining his father Ernest in running the Altounyan Hospital in Aleppo, Syria, which had been founded by his grandfather. Altounyan returned to England in 1956 and joined Benger Laboratories Ltd in Cheshire, a small pharmaceutical company which had just been taken over by Fisons Pharmaceuticals Ltd. While working there he discovered the anti-allergic agent, sodium cromogylcate, by testing the drug on himself. Altounyan was a fellow of Manchester Medical Society .