Sir John Skehel (Chair), PhD, FRS, FMedSci

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Former Director of the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, UK

As one of the world’s leading virologists, Sir John Skehel has enjoyed a spectacular career. He has been a leader in virology for decades, and as a result has been presented with many of the disciplines highest accolades. Sir John has made profound contributions to our understanding of influenza virus, his most famous work being on the virus haemagglutinin (HA). His observation that a low pH triggers a conformational change in HA, and that this leads to the fusion of the influenza virus envelope with the endosomal membrane of cells, was seminal for the field of virus entry into cells and for membrane fusion in general.

John Skehel gained his PhD from the University of Manchester in 1966, and moved to the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in 1969, where he was Director until 2006. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984 and was Knighted in June 1996. Amongst his many accolades, he was awarded the Wilhelm Feldberg Prize in 1986 and the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 2003. He was elected to the council of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2001 and is Honorary Professor at University College, London, University of Glasgow, and John Moores University, Liverpool.

His collaboration with Professor C Wiley at Harvard, which lasted for 25 years until Wiley’s death in 2001, is a remarkable tale of teamwork and foresight. During this time the pair deciphered the mechanism of membrane fusion by HA, rationalized its antigenic structure, and elucidated its receptor specificity. Their remarkable interaction, initiated during Wiley’s sabbatical visit to Mill Hill in 1976, produced some of the most influential work in virology.

The collaboration is a high point in the history of virology; 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 pathogenicity of a virus that presents an immense and continuing threat to humanity.