Cancer researcher and university administrator who contributed to Ireland’s workplace smoking ban

Obituary – Paddy Johnston: born September 14th, 1958; died June 4th, 2017

Prof Patrick Johnston: His memorial is the many who have survived or avoided cancer thanks to his work

Paddy Johnston, who has died suddenly after a cycle ride in Donegal, was internationally recognised as a leading cancer researcher, and an outstanding university administrator as vice-chancellor and president of Queen's University, Belfast. He possessed the ability to combine both roles, publishing his latest research paper in the spring.

His research influenced public policy. It contributed to the introduction of the smoking ban in workplaces in both parts of Ireland.

For a generation his main research activity focused on understanding mechanisms of drug resistance in gastrointestinal cancers. That research was never simply abstract. It resulted in some 20 patents, and attracted £100 million (€114m) in funding. It led to his participation in setting up several biotechnology companies.

His work was not just research. He was instrumental in setting up the All-Ireland Cancer Consortium. This brought together official representatives from both parts of Ireland and the US to reduce cancer incidence and mortality. Cancer patients and their families in the North have benefited from his role in modernising cancer services, including setting up the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital.


As an administrator, he had a vision of Queen’s moving up the university rankings and attracting more research funding and overseas students. Inevitably, this vision attracted some controversy.

The steely determination he exhibited as a researcher and administrator was there from his early years. A friend first met the 15-year-old Paddy when they were returning by train from Coleraine to Derry, having attended a careers event at the New University of Ulster. Paddy said nothing on the NUU syllabus interested him: he intended to study medicine at UCD, then work in cancer research.

Patrick Johnston was born in Derry in September 1958, one of a family of seven to Seamus Johnston, a teacher, and his wife Ethna (née McHugh), a native of Co Tyrone. He was reared in the city's Waterside area, attending primary school there before progressing to Derry's St Columb's College.

He then studied medicine at UCD, and worked in Dublin's Mater and St James Hospitals. In 1987, he took up a fellowship at the US National Cancer Institute, the US government's principal agency for cancer research. There he undertook doctoral studies in molecular pharmacology, drug resistance and drug development. In 1993 he was granted tenure as a member of faculty.

He wished, though, to use his expertise at home in Ireland.

In 1997, he returned to Ireland on being appointed to a professorship in the school of medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast, and as head of the oncology department at Belfast City Hospital.

In the years that followed he made an impact on academic life and on the lives of patients. In 2007 he was appointed dean of the school of medicine, dentistry and biomedical sciences.

In 2011, he was appointed chair of the Translational Research Group of the UK's Medical Research Council. Translational research aims to "translate" findings in fundamental research into medical practice and meaningful health outcomes.

In 2012, he was elected to a fellowship of the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences. In the same year, Queen’s University was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Anniversary Award based on Paddy’s leadership of the Northern Ireland Comprehensive Cancer Services Programme. That programme had led to a marked reduction in cancer mortality rates.

In 2014, he became president and vice-chancellor of Queen’s. He set about realising a vision of Queen’s as a university focused on the needs of society. That vision aimed to double research income, and more than double the numbers of international students.

His vision of the university recognised that all staff were important in the team. Thus, in his blog, members of the catering and security staff spoke, and he acknowledged their part.

Tragically, his untimely death means he will not see his vision implemented. His memorial is the many who have survived or avoided cancer thanks to his work.

He is survived by his wife Iseult: sons Seamus, Eoghan, Niall and Ruairi: sisters Eleanor and Fionnuala: brothers Michael, James, Brian, and Niall: and grandchildren Harry and Abigail.