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Obituary: Prof Patrick Johnston - a great mind whose work saved lives

Professor Patrick Johnston, the Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University who died suddenly at the weekend, will be best remembered for his contribution to improving cancer services in Northern Ireland.

Born in the Waterside area of Londonderry, he was educated at St Columb's College in the city and graduated from University College Dublin in 1982 with a MB BCh with distinction.

In 1987 he obtained a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for further clinical training in medical oncology. During his time at the NCI - known as one of the world's leading cancer research institutions - he gained an international reputation for his work.

But he always wanted to return to his native province and, when cancer services were being reformed here, he was selected to head up the new cancer centre which would lead research into new ways of treating the disease.

At one stage the then Dr Johnston threatened to pull out of his work here and return to the US unless resources were made available to complete the centre in the way he envisaged.

He was also a founder of respected firm Almac Diagnostics, which is based in Craigavon.

A long-time friend of Professor Johnston and his family, Professor Hugh McKenna, Dean of Medical School Development at Ulster University, said: "At one time Northern Ireland would not have been seen as a great place for ground-breaking research, but Paddy attracted wonderful researchers to the cancer centre and the benefit of that can be seen in the reduced mortality rates which have occurred since the opening of the cancer centre.

"I hope that his wonderful legacy in science will be passed on to future generations".

In 2012, he received a Diamond Jubilee Queen's Anniversary Prize from the Queen for the university-led reorganisation of cancer care in Northern Ireland.

His research work also led to his old school awarding him the Alumnus Illustrissimus Award, given to past pupils for an achievement of major significance or for making a considerable contribution in their field. Other past recipients include Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and John Hume.

His move from the lab to the much more public and political role of President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen's was not without it moments of tribulation for him.

In an interview with this newspaper last year, he caused a furore when he said society didn't need a 21-year-old who was a sixth century historian, adding: "It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker, and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward."

Historians and members of the university's own history department were outraged by his remarks for which he later apologised, explaining they were made in the context of the changes required within the university due to swingeing cuts to its budget from Stormont.

His vision of Queen's as a world-class institution supporting ground-breaking research relevant to the needs of a modern society was regarded by some as marketing the expertise of the student and staff bodies and, contrary to the traditional view of a university as a seat of culture, learning and free-speech. However, Professor Johnston was determined to improve the standing of Queen's in the world of academia and transform its role just as he had achieved the transforming of the reputation of cancer treatment here.

He also ran into opposition from within the university when in 2015 he announced that staff would be expected to achieve increased research grant revenue and set them targets depending on their grade. Several hundred redundancies were also planned due to reduced public funding.

It is understood Professor Johnston collapsed after going cycling in Donegal where he had a holiday home. He was described as a man for whom his wife Iseult and four sons Seamus, Eoghan, Niall and Ruairi, were the centre of his life. Iseult is a physiotherapist, teacher and researcher in the School of Health Sciences at the Ulster University.

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