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Professor Patrick Johnston was a true visionary who made difference to society

Editor's Viewpoint

When the then Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland, Dr Henrietta Campbell, produced her blueprint for reorganising cancer services in the province in the late 1990s, one of the key elements was the creation of a cancer centre at the apex of the services.

That was the place where the rarest cancers would be treated and where research into cancer therapies would be conducted. But its success would depend largely on who was chosen to lead that centre.

It was indeed fortunate that a man born in Northern Ireland and who had trained in one of the world's leading facilities, the National Cancer Institute in Washington, had the desire to return to his native land to take up the post.

Dr Patrick Johnston had established himself as a world-class cancer researcher during his time in the US, learning how potential new cancer treatments could be developed, the importance of clinical trials and the roll-out of successful therapies.

His skill and knowledge were admired by his peers and that proved invaluable in his new work. He was able to use his contacts to persuade other talented researchers to join the centre and help revolutionise cancer treatment in the province.

In a decade, the province went from languishing at the bottom of the UK league table of cancer care to near the top.

Therapies and new understanding of the way various cancers developed flowed from the researchers.

Peers regarded Dr Johnston as one of the most inspiring and motivating figures they had ever worked with and his dedication in the fight against cancer rubbed off on all those who came in contact with him.

He was later to bring that same level of focus and drive to his role as President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University.

Faced with swingeing cuts to the institution's budget from the public purse, he embarked on a new course of action to bring in much needed revenue.

Staff, depending on grade, were set targets on the level of research grants they were expected to generate, a move which naturally brought strong opposition from a body of staff who already felt threatened by the number of redundancies required to stay within budget.

For the now Professor Johnston, the future of the university was clear. It was to be an institution which made a difference to society through the expertise and innovation of its staff and students.

Essentially, he saw it doing in many fields what he and his colleagues had achieved in cancer treatment - improving the lot of people in general, through harnessing global expertise. His development of links between the university and institutions in Dubai and China was an initial part of his vision and his loss to Queen's will be immense, but this globalisation if continued and developed will be another important part of his legacy.

Professor Johnston may have ruffled a few feathers in his relatively short time at the helm of Queen's, but that is the sort of leadership that is often required in institutions which can be slow to react to quick-changing circumstances.

Those who worked with him knew him as a man of boundless energy who sought to motivate and encourage across a wide range of spheres. But above all he was someone dedicated to his family, and their sad and untimely loss must be nigh unbearable.

Their consolation is that he was a man who made a real difference.

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