Professor John Starr posthumously awarded Marjory Warren Lifetime Achievement Award

24 November 2021

The prestigious Marjory Warren Lifetime Achievement Award has been given posthumously to the late Professor John Starr, in recognition of his immense contribution to older people’s medicine.

The award was established in 2015 to celebrate the lifetime achievement of someone who has made an outstanding impact on the healthcare of older people throughout their career. One award is made each year, with a special medal being created for the prize winner.

This year the Board of Trustees of the BGS is delighted to honour the achievements of the late Professor John Starr, who died in 2018 at the age of 58. The award will be announced at the BGS Autumn Meeting 2021, with members of John’s family present online.
Professor John Starr was an unconventional and unique figure, an inspiration to many. He not only had an extraordinary track record of distinction in research outputs, and research leadership, but he was also well-known for his dedication to mentoring clinicians and academics. Widely-read and intellectually restless, he brought these gifts to both his research and clinical life, enriching the lives of colleagues and those he mentored. Who else would start a ward round with a review of a poem; or use only Renaissance paintings as the slides for an academic talk; or illustrate a complex MRI technique with an analogy using a mattress and a wine glass?
John Starr graduated in Medicine from Cambridge and King’s College, London, including a History of Fine Arts degree. He came to Edinburgh as a research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry in 1989, investigating the relationship between blood pressure and cognition. After a two-year senior registrar post at Hammersmith Hospital, London, he was appointed as consultant and part-time Senior Lecturer in Geriatric Medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh, and soon thereafter was promoted to an honorary Chair – Professor of Health and Ageing – at the University of Edinburgh.
He was a clinical academic, working as a consultant physician in Geriatric Medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. His specialist interest was in dementia care, particularly for those with associated complex physical diseases. His particular passion was improving care for older adults with intellectual disabilities, including adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities. His academic interests were broad and he had a wide-ranging interdisciplinary portfolio of research based around improving the understanding of cognitive ageing, dementia, and intellectual disability. He had an extraordinary output, with >400 papers, many in prestigious journals such as Nature, Science, NEJM, the Lancet, and the BMJ. He held >£50M worth of grants.
Professor Starr was a gentle and kind person, but these characteristics were combined with a steely determination. He would never be bullied or intimidated, standing firmly for his ideas, and continually questioning. Though he made many contributions to fundamental science alongside his clinical research, he was always the voice asking, ‘How is this relevant clinically’? He was a strong advocate for groups who are traditionally disadvantaged, and often explained that you can judge society on how it treats ‘the disadvantaged'. As testament to this ethos, he set up and ran a new clinic for adults with learning disability in addition to his work as in geriatric acute care and rehabilitation, and his memory clinic.
He supervised dozens of PhD students, and many of his students went on to thrive as academic geriatricians or scientists in relevant fields. He was also a strong advocate for female trainees, encouraging many into geriatric medicine and to consider an academic career. He enabled trainees to train flexibly, including facilitating a career break for one trainee.
Among the services he developed were a new geriatrician-led memory clinic in NHS Lothian, and also a clinic for older adults with learning disability, in particular adults with Down Syndrome and cognitive decline.
Professor Starr was a co-founder of major centres that have had a huge influence nationally and globally. He was Co-Director of the £8M Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE). His work with Ian Deary and Lawrence Whalley on the Lothian and Aberdeen Birth Cohorts of 1921 and 1936 led to the novel field of ‘cognitive epidemiology’ and many high impact papers. The cohorts were highly engaged in the study, and the first to hear of the results, and they have featured in many TV programmes, newspaper articles and public lectures. This work was recognised by the prestigious Tenovus Scotland Margaret MacLellan Award in 2006.
With extensive outside interests in music, art and biblical studies, Professor Starr was an expert on Biblical languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and taught classes in New Testament Greek with the Scottish Episcopal Institute. He undertook a PhD in 2013 in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh on the "Quantitative Analysis of the Aramaic Qumran Texts" which he completed in his spare time.
In short, Professor John Starr was a major figure in the growth of academic geriatric medicine in the UK and beyond. His creativity, dedication to older people, far-sightedness, energy and kindness have had a major and lasting impact not just in his globally influential scientific contributions but also in the hundreds of colleagues, PhD students, and trainees that he supported.
The BGS is proud to honour his memory and his life’s work through the Marjory Warren Lifetime Achievement Award 2021.