Lives of the fellows

Patrick Gerard Johnston

b.14 September 1958 d.4 June 2017
MB BCh BAO Dublin(1982) MRCPI(1985) DCH(1985) MD(1990) PhD(1995) FRCPI(1997) FRCP(1998) FRCP Edin FMedSci

Patrick Gerard Johnston, known as Paddy, was vice chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast and professor of oncology. He was foremost a physician, but that only goes a small way to describing him, his life and his legacy. As a colleague wrote: ‘Everything Paddy did came from his core belief in the value of people’.

Paddy was born in Derry, the eldest of seven children, five boys and two girls (Michael, James, Eleanor, Brian, Niall and Fionnuala). His parents, Seamus Johnston, a primary school teacher, and Ethna Johnston née McHugh, a civil servant, set an example of the primacy of family, the need for a strong work ethic and the importance of education, values which greatly influenced Paddy’s approach to life.

Throughout his life, Paddy made courageous decisions. These were never taken lightly, always as a result of great thought, and after internal and external debate and discussions with peers and mentors. The first really big decision was to leave Derry and study medicine in Dublin, where he attended University College Dublin, achieving a first/distinction when he qualified in 1982. After his internship year, he began a two-year Federated Dublin Hospitals fellowship for senior house officers, which included a six-month oncology rotation as one of a number of specialisms. In January 1986, he returned to oncology for two years, during which time he successfully applied for a Fogarty fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

During these years, there were concurrent significant events in his personal life. In November 1983, whilst working in Dr Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin, he met Iseult Wilson, who was working there as a physiotherapist. They married in April 1985 and Seamus and Eoghan were born in 1986 and 1987 respectively. They then all moved to the USA, and in 1989 and 1991 Niall and Ruairi arrived to complete the family of four boys.

The move to the USA was a life-changing experience for the whole family. The NCI was the biggest and most prestigious institute within the National Institutes of Health, and was one of the leading research centres in the world. He worked with inspirational clinicians and researchers, and these wonderful people who supported and mentored Paddy were (and are) lifelong friends.

Throughout this time, Paddy worked extremely hard, whilst maintaining an excellent work-life balance. He coached the local boys’ soccer team (Seamus’ team), played squash and cycled with friends, and learned some barbecuing skills (although cooking was not his forte). Aside from when he was on-call, he was always around for the family evening meal, and afterwards for the usual family activities of supervising homework, feeding the baby, reading stories before bedtime etc. Paddy was primarily a family man: a husband and father, son and brother. The career opportunities he decided to apply for (and equally important, the opportunities he did not apply for) always included deliberations regarding the impact of the proposed venture on his family.

The many obituaries that have been published highlight the enormous contributions Paddy made to medicine and to his specialism of oncology, his educational achievements and his employment history. Since his first grant as principal investigator of £10,000 in 1986 (from the Health Research Board, Dublin), Paddy, with a number of collaborators and teams, secured over the years more than £100m in programme, project and infrastructure grants from Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council, the European Union, the UK Department of Health and the Department of Education, the National Cancer Institute and from industry.

He was a fellow of a number of societies, including the Academy of Medical Sciences, and also won a number of awards over the years, most recently the Bob Pinedo Cancer Care Award in 2013. Paddy wrote over 290 publications and secured 20 patents, and was invited to give lectures and key note speeches at a variety of events, from international conferences to local schools.

The move from the US to Belfast, Northern Ireland, was another key event in the family history. In the 21 years he lived and worked in Belfast, he led enormous change and development, not only in the provision of cancer services (he led the creation of the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre and the associated state-of-the-art centre for cancer research and cell biology at Queen’s University, for which he received the Diamond Jubilee Queen’s Anniversary Prize from the Queen), but also in education. He supervised 28 PhD students between 1997 and 2013, and from 2007 to 2014 Paddy was dean of the school of medicine, dentistry and biomedical sciences at Queen’s University. His remit was to restructure the school and create an institute of health sciences with a focus on translational research. This was an ambitious programme, underpinned by a £100m capital development programme that included a global recruitment drive. The changes were, and are, transformative. Following this, in 2014, he became president and vice chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast and was successfully implementing his Vision 2020 programme at the time of his death.

Paddy achieved all this, whilst remaining modest and grounded. He never forgot his roots and where he came from. As a physician, and he was a physician until he died, whatever role he had, his focus and ultimate aim was to improve the patient experience. Paddy always practised person-centred care. He was a self-described ‘change merchant’. He could identify the essence of a problem and would always endeavour to tackle the root cause of the problem, even if it meant (as it often did) that he had to stand up against systems and people, governments and cliques. There was considerable resistance to him and his proposed changes from different quarters at various times. He successfully managed change because his ideas and visions were well thought out, were grounded in evidence and were fully supported by the team around him. Paddy frequently mentioned that successful leaders should surround themselves with people who know more than they, and this is what he did, consistently, in his different roles.

To his family, Paddy was the person who listened, who sang and enjoyed music and chat, who loved Donegal, the Irish language, the arts and who took an interest in the world around him and never stopped learning. Above all, Paddy was a man of his word and a man who valued people.

On 4 June 2017, Iseult and Paddy were in Donegal for the weekend, a place of great beauty and family history, where both could relax, unwind and just be. On that Sunday morning, as was usual whenever they were in Donegal, Paddy went out cycling. He died on the road between Clonmany and Dunree, as he cycled over Pinch Mountain. His family, friends and colleagues miss him terribly.

Iseult Wilson

[Belfast Telegraph 5 June 2017 – accessed 10 December 2017; Times Higher Education 22 June 2017 – accessed 10 December 2017; The Lancet 2017 390 (10090) 120 – accessed 10 December 2017; The Times 15 September 2017 – accessed 10 December 2017; Queen’s University Belfast Obituary – Professor Patrick G Johnston 1958-2017 – accessed 10 December 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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