Tribute to Professor John Starr

Thursday, 13 December, 2018

It is with deep sadness that we announce the death our colleague, Professor John Starr. We were informed in an email to our community, on 11 December 2018, which contains a lovely tribute:. There will be a thanksgiving service on Friday 4th January at 3pm, in St Mary's Cathedral, Palmerston Place, Edinburgh.

Dear Colleagues,

re: Professor John Starr

This is to let you know the awful news that our dear and valued colleague John Starr died suddenly at the weekend.

John was Honorary Professor of Health and Ageing at the University of Edinburgh, founding Director of the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre, Co-Director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE), Co-Director of the Scottish Dementia Clinical Research Network, and a practising consultant physician in the medicine of old age for NHS Lothian. This long list of major roles is testament to John’s extraordinary energy and breadth of skills in research, clinical practice, and leadership.

John Starr graduated in Medicine from Cambridge and London. He first came to Edinburgh as a research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry in 1989, investigating the relationship between blood pressure and cognition. After a stint at the renowned Hammersmith Hospital, London, John returned to Edinburgh as consultant and part-time Senior Lecturer in Geriatric Medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital. His research excellence was ever to the fore and John was soon promoted to an honorary Chair at the University of Edinburgh.  

Throughout his impressive research career John published over 500 papers, including many highly cited classics, notably on the Lothian Birth Cohorts, of which he was co-investigator from their inception in 1998. He conducted especially innovative work on the environmental epidemiology of dementias. Amongst other awards, John’s work on the relationship between physical and mental health with Ian Deary and Lawrence Whalley was recognised by the prestigious Tenovus Scotland Margaret MacLellan Award in 2006.

John was a polymath. Largely unbeknownst to his medical and scientific colleagues John was also an expert on ancient languages and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Indeed, he completed a PhD in 2013 in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh on the "Quantitative Analysis of the Aramaic Qumran Texts".

We remember John with special fondness at CCACE. He was an enthusiastic and creative contributor to the original plan for CCACE, and during its ten years of operation. He devised and led CCACE's Distance Learning Certificate Course in Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology. And he supervised CCACE's Clinical Research students' PhDs. He was an inspiring mentor and supervisor to young scientists in psychology and in clinical medicine, doing much to bring bright young clinical researchers into our research areas, and to stimulate and retain their interest.

John was a knowledgeable, inventive, cultured, and witty collaborator and good friend to the Lothian Birth Cohorts and CCACE teams and to many more. He fizzed with ideas, many brilliant, some ahead of their time. John wrote the following short piece, not long ago, reflecting his modest and effective scientific approach and his mission to seed it in others:                                                                                                                                 

Perhaps in this John authored his own best epitaph: “for me living isn’t about accumulating a list of achievements, or “impacts” as they might be termed, to be read out as a eulogy at my funeral. No, living is about being alive, that sequence of moments strung together from cradle to grave; and moments which inspire me with a sense of wonder, however ephemeral, are when I feel really alive. Research, suddenly seeing things revealed, just like moments when relationships deepen and transform, is able to bring such wonder into our lives.”

We will all miss John terribly. He is irreplaceable, and our lives will be the poorer for his untimely passing. We have sent condolences to his wife Claire, his children John, Robert, Toby and Gabriel.

In sorrow,

Ian Deary and Jonathan Seckl