The field of cancer research has suffered an “enormous loss” with the sudden death of Professor Patrick Johnston.
Prof Johnston, the vice-chancellor of Queen’s University who passed away on Sunday, has been described as one of the world’s leading cancer researchers.
It is understood Prof Johnston died shortly after going cycling in Donegal.
The cause of death has not yet been revealed as tributes have been paid to the highly regarded academic.
Prof Richard English spoke highly of his colleague at Queen’s University, known to all as ‘Paddy’.
He said: “Paddy Johnston’s contribution to Queen’s University, and to the wider life of Northern Ireland, was wide-ranging and tremendously important.”
Prof English, who is the university’s pro-vice-chancellor for internationalization and engagement, continued: “Paddy joined Queen’s in 1996, and played a pioneering role in transforming cancer research here.
“This work was academically outstanding, but it also touched the lives of so many people beyond the university through its practical, beneficial effects.
“In his time as QUB vice-chancellor since 2014, it was again the societal contribution of the university that was his most driving passion.
“He wanted Queen’s to improve people’s lives, in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and beyond.
“He’ll be missed personally by colleagues and friends at Queen’s and his wider legacy will endure.”
Prof English added: “Paddy was incredibly passionate about his work: he was dedicated, diligent, utterly committed.
“But he was also a very humane man, a compassionate person, and he had a great sense of fun.
“Working closely with him this past year, I was impressed not only by how easy it was to work with him, but also by how easy it was to like him. He had energy and integrity, and will be deeply missed.”
University and College Union (UCU) president Dr Fabian Schuppert expressed condolences to Prof Johnston’s wife Iseult, his four sons – Séamus, Eoghan, Niall and Ruairí – and to his wider family.
He added: “Our sympathies also to his colleagues and friends at Queen’s, especially those in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, whom he worked closely with over the years.
“This is very shocking news for us all.”
The university opened a book of condolence for Prof Johnston yesterday in its council chamber in the Lanyon building.
Staff, students and friends of the university can also receive support following Prof Johnston’s sudden and untimely death.
Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, paid tribute to Prof Johnston’s work in the field of cancer research.
He said: “I am deeply saddened to hear of the untimely and sudden death of Professor Patrick Johnston.
“He was regarded as one of the world’s leading cancer researchers – his passing is an enormous loss.
“A long-standing supporter of Cancer Research UK, he served on numerous funding committees and played a pivotal role in shaping our research strategy.
“He established the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology in Belfast and was a leading light in the field of personalised medicine for bowel cancer.”
Sir Harpal added: “Still an active researcher, he had only recently renewed his programme grant with us to pursue new therapeutic approaches for this disease.
“He was a true pioneer in cancer research and was also hugely committed to ensuring that people in Northern Ireland have access to the best possible cancer services.
“A truly inspiring man, the loss of Professor Johnston will be felt not just among the UK’s research community, but right around the world, such was the level of respect he commanded.”
Prof Johnston was educated in St Columb’s College, Londonderry, and University College in Dublin, where he gained his medical degree in 1982, before training at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, USA.
By the time Dr Johnston returned to Northern Ireland from the USA in the 1990s, he was considered one of the world’s foremost experts in cancer.
He joined Queen’s in 1996 as professor of oncology, and helped create the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology. He became vice-chancellor in 2014.
In 2012, he received a Diamond Jubilee Queen’s Anniversary Prize for the university-led reorganisation of cancer care in NI.