Patrick Johnston, 1958-2017

Tributes paid after sudden death of Queen’s University Belfast vice-chancellor

June 22, 2017
Patrick Johnston
Source: Queen's University Belfast

A leading cancer researcher who became a vice-chancellor has died.

Patrick Johnston was born in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in September 1958 and went to school in the city before going on to study medicine at University College Dublin, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery (1982) and became an MD in 1988. He continued his training at Dublin teaching hospitals and then took up a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the US, where he gained a PhD.

Returning to Northern Ireland in 1996, Professor Johnston was appointed head of the department of oncology at Queen’s University Belfast and Belfast City Hospital. He headed an international collaboration known as the NCI All Ireland Cancer Consortium and, in 2007, opened a new Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s. His leadership of the Northern Ireland Comprehensive Cancer Services programme, which greatly enhanced survival rates, also gained the university the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Anniversary Award in 2012.

In his research, Professor Johnston focused on understanding drug resistance in gastrointestinal cancers. Along with producing some crucial papers, he secured more than 20 patents and grants worth more than £100 million. He also founded several biotech companies.

Promoted to dean of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s in 2007, Professor Johnston went on in 2014 to become its 12th president and vice-chancellor.

Joe O’Sullivan, professor of radiation oncology at Queen’s, praised Professor Johnston for his “razor-sharp clinical skills. He continued with a small clinical practice at the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre, Belfast, during his tenure as dean of medicine and remained on the oncology call rota until the demands of being vice-chancellor made it impossible. I remember fondly seeing a group of young doctors huddled around an X-ray image on a Saturday morning ward round receiving teaching from the vice-chancellor.”

Mark Lawler, dean of education at Queen’s, remembered Professor Johnston as a man who was happy to “interact with people from all walks of life, whether they be royalty or presidents, gardeners or kitchen staff”. He also imbued all his colleagues with “the importance of constantly challenging what you do. He challenged us (his ‘So what?’ questions were legendary), he challenged himself and he gave us licence to be disruptive, to not accept the status quo, to be ambitious, to always try things.”

Professor Johnston died while cycling on 4 June and is survived by his wife, Iseult, and four sons.

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