Development & Alumni Relations Office 



MEET PROFESSOR MARTIN MCKEE, PUBLIC HEALTH CHAMPION, QUEEN’S MEDIC AND HONORARY GRADUATE  Professor Martin McKee in academic robes for honorary degree

22 February 2021

In our latest Honoris Causa feature meet Professor Martin McKee CBE, MB BCh BAO (1979), MD (1990), DSc (2006), who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Medical Science (DMedSc) by his alma mater for Distinction in Medicine and Science at summer graduation in 2019.

“My parents were general practitioners, practising in the Short Strand. Their patients came from both sides of the sectarian divide but as the surgery was on the interface, the situation was often difficult. We lived in a rather more peaceful part of the city, at the very top of the Ormeau Road.

“My brother and I both went to the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst); he stayed in Northern Ireland – although he too has also travelled widely – and took over our parents’ practice.”

Born in Belfast in 1956, it was by no means a certainty that Martin's career would automatically follow that of his parents, as from a young age his sights were firmly set further afield.  

“I came from a medical family and there was an implicit assumption that I would follow in the family tradition. However, I was also very interested in what we would now call international relations. Both at home and at school, I engaged with family and friends on what was happening elsewhere, in particular political changes in Africa and Latin America and, of course, Southeast Asia.

“I had also travelled extensively around Europe, with my first Interrail trip at the age of 15. One of the more memorable experiences was in a youth hostel in Budapest where I got to meet people from many of the countries in Africa and Latin America that I had been reading about.

“However, as I was on the science track at school, and I was also interested in medicine, I was persuaded that I could do medicine and then make use of my qualification in the international arena later.”

Education

With this in mind, and with a sound education at Inst, Martin applied to nearby Queen’s to read medicine.

“I did get offers from English medical schools. At one interview, strange though it may now seem, I was asked if I viewed myself as British or Irish. I replied, European, a rather prescient observation in the light of subsequent events.”

Recalling his time at Queen’s with affection he singles out friendships and his medical tutors among his fondest memories.  

“My first observation relates to the degree of camaraderie in our year. We were working very long hours, and spending much more time on the wards than is the case now, where the educational process is much more structured. In contrast, ours had much more of an apprenticeship element. We still have five year reunions and even after this time, we remain a very close group.

“Second, I have very fond memories of the consultants whose wards I was attached to. Even as a medical student, you felt very much part of team. They were a very diverse group, many with their own idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, but very supportive of the medical students who were following them around.”

Despite his wider interests in global politics, the young Dr McKee pursued a traditional academic medicine career in the Department of Medicine at Queen’s, though he soon realised that his laboratory research didn’t address the challenges faced by those he was seeing in the outpatient clinic in the Royal Victoria Hospital.

“Although the 1980s were not that long ago, I was seeing patients with scurvy and beriberi,” he said. “I moved into public health and spent a year doing a Master’s degree in London, where I was offered a post at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

“My intention was to complete my training and come back to Northern Ireland. However, it didn’t work out that way.”

Career

Given that awareness of international affairs, when a new opportunity arose to develop LSHTM’s links with Europe, it seemed like a golden opportunity. Until then, his collaborative work had been concentrated in low income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Just as he was about to take up the post, the wall came down in Berlin.

“I already knew Eastern Europe reasonably well and suddenly the job that I had been appointed to became much larger than I could have anticipated.

“For the next decade I concentrated on two big issues, the health effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was the subject of my subsequent Queen’s DSc), and the impact of the increasing European integration within the framework of the European Union.

These topics forced Professor McKee to move outside his medical training, although he continued to make use of the knowledge he had gained at Queen’s and elsewhere, exemplified by a study where he and his colleagues found similar changes in biomarkers and heavy drinkers in Belfast and Moscow.

“I was now immersed in social and political sciences as well as medicine. Later, I would apply the same skills and knowledge to understand the health impact of the 2008 global financial crisis and, currently, the COVID pandemic.”

In the late 1990s along with a number of colleagues he established, and is currently research director of, the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, which had an enormous influence on his professional career.

A unique partnership of universities, governments (including Ireland and the UK), and international agencies, it has given Professor McKee a seat at the health policy table in Europe for over two decades, combining his teenage interest in world affairs with his training in medicine in a way he agrees he could not really have imagined.

Currently Professor of European Public Health at LSHTM, he was elected to the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, the US National Academy of Medicine and Academia Europaea, a pan-European Academy of Humanities, Letters, Law, and Sciences. A Past President of the European Public Health Association, he was a member of the International Advisory Board of the UKCRC Centre of Excellence for Public Health (NI).

He went on to create the European Centre on Health of Societies in Transition, a WHO Collaborating Centre comprising a team of researchers working primarily on health and health policy in central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

His research has focused on health determinants (especially social change, alcohol, tobacco and nutrition), health system performance, and the relationship between health and the economy.

Author of almost 1,300 scientific papers and 46 books – including on the impact of EU law on health and health policy, European research policy, and cross-border mobility of patients – he was an editor of the European Journal of Public Health for 15 years and a member of numerous editorial boards, as well as being an editorial consultant to The Lancet.

A Fellow of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of London, Edinburgh, and Ireland and the UK Faculty of Public Health, he is a former chair of the UK Society for Social Medicine.

Awards

Professor McKee was made a CBE by HM Queen Elizabeth II for services to healthcare in Europe in the 2005 Birthday Honours.

In 2014, he was awarded the Alwyn Smith Prize for "the most outstanding contribution to the health of the public" by the UK Faculty of Public Health and, the same year, a scientometric analysis in the journal Health Research Policy & Systems identified him as the most productive researcher in global health systems research.

In 2015, Professor McKee was included in the Thomson Reuters list of the top 1% most cited researchers worldwide.

Then, in 2019, he received an honorary degree from his alma mater for Distinction in Medicine and Science.

“It was a great honour. It’s actually my sixth but of course, and you would expect me to say this, it is the one that I’m most proud of,” he added.

In addition to similar degrees from the universities of Debrecen (Hungary), Maastricht (The Netherlands), Karlstad and the Nordic School of Public Health (both Sweden), and the Athens School of Public Health (Greece), Professor McKee has held visiting professorships at the Universities of Zagreb and Belgrade, the London School of Economics, and Taipei Medical University and has given many endowed lectures around the world.

Coronavirus

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor McKee has regularly appeared in the media in his capacity as a member of the Independent SAGE, the group of scientists working together to provide independent advice on how to minimise fatalities and support the country’s recovery from the coronavirus.

At this stage, is it possible to say how COVID-19 has impacted long-term on UK public health policy?

“I wish I knew,” says Professor McKee. “There is no doubt that the pandemic will impact on policies more generally. This is something I am thinking a lot about at present. I’m a member of a WHO Commission (and chair its Scientific Advisory Board), chaired by Mario Monti, the former Italian prime minister, looking at the future of health and development in Europe. My fellow commissioners are mainly drawn from politics, with two former prime ministers and three former presidents, international financial institutions, and the environmental sector.

“We’re looking at some of the really big questions, such as the future of global governance, the role of central banks, industrial strategy, global trade, and the like. It is clear that some countries have done much better than others during the pandemic."

And beyond COVID what should our main public health concerns be as a nation?

“The obvious answer is climate change. That will have a profound impact on our lives in so many ways. Indeed, it already is doing so.”

Personal

Martin McKee currently lives in London with his wife Dorothy and two daughters and returns to Northern Ireland as often as work and other commitments allow.

“I usually get back once or twice a year, but primarily for work. I’m an external examiner at Queen’s and have been a member of the advisory board for the University’s Centre of Excellence in Public Health.

“I have recently taken over as chair of the scientific Board of the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association and am always happy to speak at conferences in Northern Ireland when time permits.

“I was particularly pleased to be the chair of the UK Society for Social Medicine in 2010, when it met in Belfast, as this was an opportunity to take some of my colleagues from other parts of Europe around my home city and, briefly, along the Antrim coast.”

He’s also a current donor to his old University, something he sees as essential in the current economic environment.

“I’m fortunate to be able to give something back to Queen’s. For those of us who are in this position, I do think that it is important. It is not clear to me that the Northern Ireland Executive fully appreciates the amazing resource it has in the University, so I suppose every little helps.”

Queen's awards honorary degrees to individuals who have achieved high distinction or given significant service in one or more fields of public or professional life, and who serve as ambassadors for the University and Northern Ireland around the world.

For enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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