Development & Alumni Relations Office 

RETURN TO QUEEN’S – 70 YEARS AFTER STARTING AS UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS  Brian Hall (left) and Robin Shanks, in front of Lanyon Building

08 October 2021

Two graduates of Queen’s returned to campus on 29 September 2021 for a very special anniversary visit to mark 70 years since they ‘came up’ to University, in what was then a very different Northern Ireland and a world still emerging from the ravages of the Second World War.    

Medical student Robert Gray Shanks (known as Robin), would go on to have a distinguished career in the discovery and development of beta blockers, and in University administration, while Law undergraduate Frederick Brian Hall would go on to become a solicitor before ultimately serving as a Master in the Family Division of the High Court.

Speaking about the visit, and reflecting on what life was like at Queen’s seven decades ago, Robin Shanks said:

“The University has changed unbelievably in that time. In 1951 only about 4% of 18-year-olds went to university and almost all of those at Queens were from Northern Ireland. With around 600 students starting every year, the total number at Queen’s was just 2,500. Compare that to today when over 50% of 18-year-olds opt for university, so there are almost 25,000 students at Queen's from over 80 countries around the world, with approximately 5,500-6,000 graduating each year! 

"Back in the day, many of us would meet for coffee and lunch in the Students’ Union in the McMordie Hall, now the Harty Room in the School of Music. As a result there was great mixing of students from different faculties.

“Alcohol was not normally available in the Union and the University calendar gave the names and addresses of all members of staff!”

To be admitted to medicine at the time, a student had to have passed Latin at Junior Certificate, equivalent to today’s (GCSE), as well as French and English at Senior Certificate. About 100 students started with Robin in his first year where they studied Botany, Zoology, Chemistry and Physics, though only 60 progressed to second year, of which 50 would qualify as doctors at the end of the six year course.

Robin, who graduated in 1958, became a lecturer in the Department of Therapeutics and Pharmacology at Queen’s in 1967, having spent the intervening period in Northern Ireland, America and Cheshire. He was appointed Whitla Professor of Therapeutics and Pharmacology at the University in 1977, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in 1986, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (PVC) in 1991. Towards the end of his tenure as a PVC he also served for a short period as Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University before the appointment of Sir George Bain to the senior role.    

“I retired in 1998. My main research interest throughout my career was in the discovery, properties and clinical use of beta blocking drugs.

“My late wife, Denise, and three of my daughters also graduated from Queen’s.”

Robin was in receipt of five degrees from Queen's in the 1950s and 60s, and an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) in 1999. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a rare tribute for a Doctor of Medicine, and was also honoured by Her Majesty the Queen when she conferred on him a CBE in recognition of his work on beta blockers.

“Most of my professional and scientific work was on the discovery and description of beta blocking drugs, work that was recognised throughout the world. I was the first to administer beta blocking drugs to man, was the co-discoverer of propranolol – the most widely used beta blocking drug for the last 50 years – and was the first person to discover the selective beta blocking drugs which are now the basis of treatment of many diseases.”

Though friends for almost 70 years, and now near neighbours in North Down, Brian Hall’s career took a totally different path from Robin’s. For him, Law classes were held in one house - No 19 - in University Square, where only four of his 30 classmates were female.     

Commenting as the very sprightly octogenarians toured the main Lanyon Building, the Graduate School (formerly the Lynn Library) and the quad, Brian said:

“I entered Queen's in 1951 to study Law under Professors Montrose and Newark. After graduating, I spent 17 years as a solicitor before becoming Deputy Director of the Northern Ireland Court Service. I was subsequently appointed as the Official Solicitor, and ultimately as a Master, in the Family Division of the High Court.”

Brian, who played rugby during his University days for CIYMS, also took up water skiing and played squash as an undergraduate, and enjoyed attending debates organised by The Literific and the Student Law Society.

"I recall one Literific debate where the motion under consideration was 'This House deplores the monotony of monogamy'. Queen's had a very strong debating team at the time, as did the Student Law Society. I enjoyed participating then and indeed later when, as a member of the legal profession, I took part in and organised Law Society debates. 

"We were all very lucky to get the start at Queen's that we did," he added. "In my year, the intake for Law was 31, with just 15 eventually going on to graduate - seven in 1954 and eight, including myself, in 1955 who took the extra year to complete honours. Of the 16 who did not finish Law, some dropped out while several switched to other courses.

"I remember fondly the three designated bays in the Lynn Library, now home - and a lot different - to the wonderful Graduate School, which housed shelves of Law reports. Those certainly were very different times."

And how did the friendship between Brian and Robin, which has endured 70 years, come about?      

"Robin and I came to Queen's from schools in different parts of Northern Ireland - he from Methodist College in Belfast and I from Coleraine Inst - to study different degree programmes. I knew him to see in the Students' Union and somehow a lifelong friendship began. Since we've retired, we've enjoyed playing golf with mutual friend and fellow Queen's graduate Professor Bob Stout, himself a former Dean of the Medical Faculty," explained Brian. 

The campus may have changed radically in the last 70 years, both in terms of overall numbers and the split between male and female students but both men still hold very clear and cherished memories of times spent at lectures, in the Drill Hall and at the Students’ Union. The world of the 1950s may have been a very different place but the Queen’s experience left an indelible lifelong impression on two very distinguished alumni.  

For more on organising a class reunion at Queen’s visit our Events & Reunions web page or contact the Development and Alumni Relations Office on   

For general enquiries or to submit graduate news stories, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO).






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