Professor Roland Levinsky

Pioneer in immunology who became a reforming Vice-Chancellor of Plymouth University
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The Independent Online

Roland Jacob Levinsky, immunologist: born Bloemfontein, South Africa 16 October 1943; Senior House Officer, Great Ormond Street Hospital 1973-74, Research Fellow in Immunology 1974-77, Honorary Consultant in Immunology 1978-99; Senior Lecturer in Immunology, then Reader in Paediatric Immunology, Institute of Child Health 1978-85, Hugh Greenwood Professor of Immunology 1985-99, Dean and Director of Research 1990-99; Vice-Provost for Biomedicine and Head of Graduate School, University College London 1999-2002; Vice-Chancellor, Plymouth University 2002-07; married 1971 Beth Brigden (one son, two daughters); died Wembury, Devon 1 January 2007.

Roland Levinsky was an immunologist of international renown whose achievements included performing, at Great Ormond Street Hospital, the UK's first successful bone-marrow transplants in children. Later he performed the first successful gene therapy in children with serious inherited diseases who would otherwise have died.

As Dean of the Institute of Child Health in London, he transformed it into a top-class research institution. He subsequently performed a similar transformation as Vice-Chancellor from 2002 of Plymouth University, pulling it up by its bootstraps so that it was zooming its way up the league tables and attracting high-calibre students.

Levinsky was born in 1943 in South Africa. His father, a Communist, from the Poland/Lithuania borders, had fled there to escape the Nazis. In South Africa, he often had difficulties with the authorities - "We had our fair share of police raids," Roland Levinsky recalled. His father died when Roland was 13, and two years later his British-born mother returned to England with her three children, of whom Roland was the youngest.

Roland Levinsky was educated at William Ellis School in Camden and then University College London, where - inspired by the great biologist J.Z. Young, the Professor of Zoology - he graduated in physical anthropology en route to qualifying as a doctor. He did house jobs at Great Ormond Street Hospital, going on to be a medical registrar and Nuffield Research Fellow, following this with a year's postgraduate training and research on auto-immune kidney disease in Philadelphia, where he gained the expertise that was to shape his future.

He returned in 1978 to the Institute of Child Health in London, attached to Great Ormond Street Hospital. Here he did outstanding research work on circulating immune complexes, masterminded the successful bone-marrow transplants for several fatal diseases of childhood and established a method for prenatal diagnosis of severe combined immune deficiency. He rose to Reader in and then Professor of Immunology, and in 1989 became Dean of the Institute of Child Health.

Levinsky was a great teacher and mentor who also served on government committees and the editorial boards of four medical journals, and lectured internationally on immunodeficiency diseases and gene therapy. He co-authored over 200 research papers, many of them of landmark importance, and several books.

When he took over the institute, it was clinician-led and was, says Professor Andrew Copp, the current Dean, "missing a trick". Levinsky reorganised the institute's structure and recruited young clinical and non-clinical researchers from a wide range of fields. This revved up the quality of the institute's research output and hence its ability to attract substantial research grants from the most prestigious funding bodies, including the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.

In 1992, two years after he was appointed, the Research Assessment Exercise gave the institute a score of three. At the next RAE four years later it scored five, and later it got a starred five, the highest possible. It was widely acknowledged that this was a result of Levinsky's policies of recruitment and reorganisation.

Levinsky fostered a close relationship between the institute and University College London, which culminated in a merger in 1996. His administrative talents were widely recognised at UCL and in 1999 he was appointed Vice-Provost for Biomedicine and head of the graduate school.

In 2002 he left London, medicine and his position as second-in-command to become Chief Executive and Vice- Chancellor of Plymouth University. At his interview Levinsky said that, if appointed, he would build a strong university on a single site, relocating Seale-Hayne Agricultural College from near Newton Abbot and Rolle teacher training college from Exmouth. He regarded his appointment as a mandate to do just that.

He met with fierce opposition from Seale-Hayne, which, having trained most of the landed aristocracy and gentry in estate management, had plenty of supporters in the House of Lords. The lobby even won the backing of the Prince of Wales. Levinsky had abusive phone calls from local farmers who threatened to dump manure on his drive (they didn't) and a death threat in the middle of the night (later traced to a student, who said it was a prank). But, within a couple of years, Plymouth had jumped up the university rankings, and Levinsky was confident that it would go higher.

Levinsky also served on the town's strategic partnership, not least because he wanted to keep young brains in Plymouth after they graduated. He aligned the university's research strategy with that of the regional development authority, investing in marine science and technology, biomedicine and health, and creative arts.

He found time to take an MA in modern Russian history - to rediscover the experience of being a student and to understand the political background to his father's life. He and his wife had taken up ceramics when he was a junior doctor as they didn't see enough of each other and this would give them time together. This turned into a lifelong activity, and they sold their porcelain-ware at local galleries. Levinsky also sailed a 43ft yacht, including a transatlantic crossing.

He and his wife were taking their dog for a walk when high winds broke an electricity pylon and a high-voltage power cable whipped through the air, hitting Roland Levinsky and killing him instantly.

Caroline Richmond