PROFESSOR PATRICK G JOHNSTON: THE PHYSICIAN
Citation by Senator George J Mitchell
Wednesday, 13 December 2017
When he was at school, Paddy Johnston failed science three years in a row. Hard to believe, isn’t it.
Then, when he was about 15, his mother Eithne went to a parent-teacher meeting. She happened to mention to the form teacher that young Patrick was thinking of doing medicine. The teacher said – You must be joking.
Paddy told this story himself, so it must be true! But, clearly, that teacher didn’t know Paddy very well - didn’t know about his determination, about his commitment and his resilience, and his ability not just to overcome failure but to learn from it.
He did go on to study medicine, of course, at University College Dublin, but it wasn’t at all clear what sort of medicine that would eventually be.
He actually thought of psychiatry at one point. He went for an interview and was invited to psychoanalyse himself. He replied ‘Well, I’m an ordinary kind of a guy.’
So this wasn’t another Freud in the making!
The experience that gave him his direction came in 1983 when he was a senior house officer in a hospital in the south of Ireland.
While taking care of a 15-year-old boy with a very advanced Ewing’s Sarcoma, he began to realise how little he knew about cancer and how rudimentary the patterns of care were.
There had to be something better. And so he went looking for it.
By 1987, he was in the United States, with a Fellowship at the National Cancer Institute at Bethesda, Maryland, engaged in a clinical specialism that was not widely followed in Britain and Ireland at that time – medical oncology.
He went on to pursue doctoral studies in molecular pharmacology, drug resistance and drug development and received the American Society of Clinical Oncology Young Investigator Award and the Technology Award from the NCI.
He was promoted to Senior Investigator in 1991 but in 1996 he and Iseult and the family decided to leave America and move to Belfast where he had been given a new challenge - the huge responsibility of reorganising cancer care for the whole of Northern Ireland.
This would lead to the creation of the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital and the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology here at Queen’s which I was honoured to open ten years ago when I was Chancellor.
These stand today as remarkable pillars of achievement – the fulfilment of his vision of a cancer service where research is at the core, accelerating discovery to patient benefit, driving quality health care as well as answering questions about treatment.
And the strategy led to a marked reduction in cancer mortality rates, which was recognised in 2012 when the University was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Anniversary Prize, based on Paddy’s leadership of the Comprehensive Cancer Services programme.
Paddy Johnston’s horizons were wide. He saw the potential of Northern Ireland becoming a global leader in cancer care and the benefits that would bring. He brought in world-leading researchers and clinicians – not only oncologists but immunologists, virologists, chemists – people who’d never ever thought for one moment of coming to Belfast.
But as someone has commented – Once you met him and shook his hand you just knew – This guy has got something.
I was honoured to chair a unique international collaboration which he formed with the National Cancer Institute in the United States to create the NCI-All Ireland Cancer Consortium, focused on cancer prevention and treatment, public health and clinical trials.
And a big moment came in 2014 when, along with Professor Mark Lawler, he launched a European Cancer Patient’s Bill of Rights at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on World Cancer Day.
Paddy was appointed Dean of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences in 2007 and led the development of a truly international medical school and the remarkable Health Sciences Campus which we see at Queen’s today.
As Dean and later as Vice-Chancellor he maintained his own research programme, focused on understanding the mechanisms of drug resistance in colorectal cancer.
In 2012 he was elected to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences and in 2013 he was named winner of the international Bob Pinedo Cancer Care Prize, in recognition of his work in translating discovery science.
An extraordinary career. An extraordinary man. And what will be his legacy? Well, I can give you two examples.
His legacy is in a grant of £800,000 from Cancer Research UK to fund research into why chemotherapy works for some bowel cancer sufferers but not others. Paddy and his colleague Dan Longley applied for the grant in the autumn last year. Their success was announced just a few weeks ago.
His legacy can also be found in a letter of condolence which Iseult received from an elderly gentleman in Donegal.
The writer tells of a remarkable spread of cancer among him and his siblings and how Paddy took a personal interest in their situation.
He organised a rapid and comprehensive review which discovered a gene defect. He met them all to set up specialised blood tests and through subsequent scrutiny and review there has been significant avoidance or mitigation of further cancers, thanks to very early diagnosis.
The letter adds – ‘We couldn’t say enough of his goodness, dedication and concern and will never forget him.’
And I think we can all echo those words.
I want to close by speaking directly to Iseult and to your sons. Our hearts are broken, as are yours, but we also rejoice, all of us, at having had the opportunity to know and work with Paddy whose life touched us all. He will remain in our memories.
I remember most clearly the last time I saw him early one morning at your kitchen table in the Vice- Chancellor’s Lodge. I just finished a bowl of cereal you so kindly set out for me and Paddy came charging in through the back door.
He had just finished his morning run but he was, as always, still full of energy and ideas. I was, of course, acutely aware that my only exercise that morning was opening the box of cereal and while I was eating breakfast and reading the paper, he was out running several miles.
He sat down and it was just as though he were presiding over a forum at Queen’s. We talked about his latest project with the same powerful logic and infectious enthusiasm he brought to every task, indeed he brought it to life itself.
And I thought again, this guy really is something.
So let us all hold on to two things. We have suffered a great loss but we mourn with the knowledge that Paddy Johnston was a great man who led a great life.