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Laureation address – Dr Ian Johnston

Dr Ian Johnston
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science

Laureation by Professor David Harrison
School of Medicine


Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Dr Ian Hugh Johnston for the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

The increasing trend to “evidence based medicine”, sometimes mumbled as a mantra and accompanied by a wealth of needless paperwork, tends to obscure the history of a medical training as being first and foremost an education in life, art and method. In an age where metrics sometimes dominate merit, and scholarship is overshadowed by research output, it is an honour, privilege and challenge to meet someone who perfectly encapsulates the essence of a true academic: someone who takes scholarship to a level few of us can imagine, who turns adversity into energy and who has a deep appreciation of the present based upon a profound appreciation and understanding of the past.

Ian Hugh Johnston, born in Collaroy, New South Wales, Australia, arrived as a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of St Andrews in 1958 to read Medicine. (Chancellor, I am new to this job but I understand there has been a university here for quite some time.) He excelled academically but I am sure no-one here is surprised to hear that. He graduated with First Class Honours in Anatomy in 1962, having been taught by the father of our current Dean of Medicine, and then MB ChB in 1965 and awarded the WA Low Prize as the most distinguished graduate of the year. He trained in neurosurgery and achieved a Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians of Glasgow in 1969, and in the same year became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. An MD thesis on The Pseudotumour Syndrome was subsequently awarded by the University of Dundee. His neurosurgery training took place in the UK and Canada and from 1974 to retirement in 1999 Ian worked in Sydney, Australia, becoming Associate Professor of Neurosurgery. He has published more than 80 peer-reviewed papers including one particularly interesting gem in 2000 entitled Late recurrence of glossopharyngeal neuralgia after IXth and partial X nerve rhizotomy, a riveting read for every graduating medical student here today. He has continued to publish in the medical literature since his official retirement.

So far so good: Ian Johnston BSc, MB ChB, MD, FRCS(Glasgow), FRCS(Eng), and a credit to any university research excellence exercise. However, many St Andrews graduates are distinguished in their chosen field and that of itself would not be reason enough for me to present Ian Johnston as a candidate today.

I must go back to 1958 and introduce three factors: firstly, the initial year of medicine was about an education and the encouragement of scholarship, virtues that this university values highly. Secondly, Ian was already suffering from a painful arthritic condition known as ankylosing spondylitis. This condition caused chronic pain and discomfort and effectively destroyed any normal sleeping pattern. Thirdly, Ian was determined to use the time for profit and regarded his lack of sleep as an opportunity, not a handicap. His pain continued largely unabated until modern biological therapy became available in 2006 using Anti-Tumour Necrosis Factor Alpha. By then sleep disturbance persisted though the pain subsided.

To understand history and philosophy Ian chose to go back to the ancient texts. To do so he needed to learn the ancient languages. So in first year at St Andrews he taught himself Chinese, seeking lessons and support once he had mastered it to a merely expert level. This enabled him to read original texts and to start a lifelong collection of the priceless jewels of Chinese literature. Clearly Greek and Latin were also required. These two were mastered and so began a parallel second vocation to the uncovering and understanding of literature that underpins so much of the thought and philosophy we cherish today. So alongside his medical training and career Ian acquired a First Class Honours in Classical Greek in 1994; an MA in Latin from the University of Sydney in 1996. I should have mentioned the PhD in Chinese from Sydney in 1991 with a thesis entitled Ku Yen-Wu’s Record of Daily Knowledge; and for good measure an MLitt in Philosophy with Distinction in 1997, followed by a thesis entitled Galen on the Classification and Causation of Diseases for which he was awarded a PhD in Classical Greek from the University of Sydney in 2006.

Conveniently, Ian had three children and he taught each of them an ancient language as a bedrock for their lifelong learning. His second career has been in translation and he has presented internationally at many venues. He has authored many books: Singing of Scented Grass, Verses from Chinese was published in 2003 followed by another six, most recently Daxue and Zhongyong – a bilingual version with the commentaries of Zheng Xuan, Kong Yingda and Zhu Xi, published in 2012. A further four books are in press including further translations of Galen. It is not the prodigious academic achievement and degrees alone that impress, but rather the demonstration that with the right attitude and right environment an honest striving for truth and scholarship can bridge across time, across disciplines and across cultures, unifying and uniting, no matter how great the adversity. Few could aspire to achieve what Ian has done, but all can and should admire that determination to overcome, to excel and to share that for the good of mankind. Graduating students, I present you a challenge – make a difference!

Chancellor, in recognition of his outstanding work in neurosurgery and his major contribution to scholarship, I invite you to confer on Dr Ian Hugh Johnston the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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