Image of the gates of Liverpool Cathedral

Sir John Skehel

Oration

Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson

Honorable Pro-Chancellor, I have pleasure in presenting Sir John Skehel for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of Liverpool John Moores University.  

Sir John Skehel is one of the worlds leading virologists. He has enjoyed a spectacular career over the course of four decades and has been presented with many of the disciplines highest accolades. His contribution to the understanding of the influenza virus has been profound, not least through his 25-year collaboration on the virus haemagglutinin with Professor Don Wiley of Harvard, a collaboration which has been described as a high point in the history of virology.  

An Imperial College citation succinctly summarises Sir John's research contribution: "It illustrates Skehel's extraordinary biological intuition, his ability to look decades into the future, and his capacity to share discovery and to bring out greatness in others. 

The breadth and consequences of his own research in virology, in defining the molecular basis of influenza virus infection has provided fundamental understanding of the evolution and pathogenic behaviour of a virus that presents an immense and continuing threat to humanity."  

John was born in 1941 in Blackburn to Irish parents Joseph and Annie Josephine Skehel. 

At St Mary's College Blackburn, as well as excelling at football, he showed an aptitude for the sciences. He progressed to The University of Aberystwyth to study agricultural biochemistry and had the time of his life there: he made friends he's kept for life and became an honorary Welshman, picking up an abiding love of rugby and singing.   

After graduation, he married Anita Varley from Oswaldtwistle - that's near Blackburn - Anita is in the audience today to share in this special occasion. John then went to UMIST for postgraduate research and completed a PhD in biochemistry in 1966. 

Armed with a fellowship, he next undertook postdoctoral research with Derek Burke at the University of Aberdeen, and with Bill Joklik at Duke University before joining the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in 1969 where he worked primarily on influenza viruses. During his time at Mill Hill, he has been Director of the WHO World Influenza Centre, Head of the Infections & Immunity Group, Head of the Division of Virology, and Director of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research from1987 to 2006.  

Now free of the administrative and managerial load, he is able to devote more time to his ground-breaking research, and his other public duties - he is a member and former trustee of Cancer Research UK, a trustee and chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Animal Health Trust, a trustee and former Chairman of the Executive Council of the Novartis Foundation and a board member of the National Biological Standards Board.  

Many honours have come his way during his career to date:  

  • He is an elected Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization 
  • Fellow of the Royal Society 
  • Member of the Academia Europa
  • Fellow and currently Vice-President of the Academy of Medical Sciences
  • He is an Honorary Professor at Liverpool John Moores University, Glasgow University, and University College London 
  • He is Fellow of the University of Wales 
  • Honorary Member of the Society for General Microbiology 

And he was awarded an honorary DSc by UCL in 2004 and by the Council for National Academic Awards in 1990 - with the oration delivered by Professor Bill Hale, our former Dean of Science and now Professor Emeritus, who is present today  

Sir John's prizes include:

  • The Wilhelm Feldberg Prize in 1986
  • The Robert Koch Prize in 1987
  • The ICN International Prize in Virology in 1992
  • The Louis Jeantet Prix de Medecin in 1988
  • The Royal Society's Royal Medal in 2003
  • Imperial College's Ernst Chain Prize in 2004 for his contribution to the understanding of human disease
  • The International Union of Microbiological Societies Stuart Mudd Award for Basic Microbiology in 2005 
  • The 2007 International Louis D, Institut de France Grand Prize - which will help sustain his laboratory at Mill Hill for some time to come  

He was Knighted in June 1996 for services to science  

Despite all the national and international honours and prizes, John Skehel keeps his feet firmly on the ground. He left Blackburn 40 years ago but he remains true to his roots and is a proud season-ticket holder at Blackburn Rovers. But John does like successful teams, so he also has a soft spot for Liverpool FC. 

We first made links with this outstanding scientist in 1993 when we awarded him an honorary professorship.

Now we are pleased to consolidate those links with the award of a fellowship to this most deserving person. 

Thus I have great pleasure in presenting Professor Sir John Skehel, this most distinguished son of our region, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.