I first met John in April 1996 when I went to Manchester for an interview. He seemed to have modelled himself as an eccentric professor, and throughout the time I knew him I never quite worked out how much this was really just him, and how much he was playing with the persona out of impishness.
John saw something in me, and offered me a place on CHSTM’s MA in the History and Social Anthropology Of Science, Technology and Medicine, a unique and, it would be fair to say, brain-stretching course. I was assured funding for the course and with his backing, was fortunate enough to get Wellcome Trust funding for a PhD too. Thus John did, one way or another, change the course of my life. I was far from alone in this.
Although I think there’s a general rule that memorials should be universally glowing, it would be fair to say that my relationship with John could be a bit tetchy, and I think he would rather I was honest about that. He had a habit, in supervisions, of scratching his chest. Some of his shirts had a button missing where he would delve inside for an itch. Rumour had it that one of his overseas students told him off for this. “Oh”, said John, “is it not acceptable in Japan?” “It’s not acceptable anywhere” she snapped back. Then there was the time he asked me the difference between sex and gender. I didn’t really know where to start with that one and it’s only now that I realise how much he must have trusted my judgement to ask that question of me.
I think now, those habits are a sign of how much at ease with himself John was. He had a slightly odd gait and on investigation someone, perhaps a physiotherapist, recommended orthopaedic shoes. So John bought orthopaedic trainers and went bounding round the corridors of the old Maths Tower in Manchester, joyously realising that people were staring at his almost luminously-clad feet. I grew accustomed to 3-minute corridor supervisions, which were frankly terrifying. It’s amazing how much information someone can fling at you in 2 sentences as they pass you in the hallway. And then there was his habit of giving you half a name and a fraction of a title, with a very approximate date, and leaving you to find the book or article in question. This was prior to google and I attribute many of my more terrier-like research abilities to JVP’s supervision methods. For some reason I couldn’t stand the thought of turning up at my next supervision without having tracked down the piece in question and having read it thoroughly, no matter that John would have moved on to something else by then.
John cared very much about his subject and about Manchester. That he has gone so relatively young and so suddenly leaves the world a little diminished. His PhD was supervised by Alan Sterling Parkes and I was always proud of the fact that this made the physiologist F.H.A. Marshall my academic great-grandfather. But there are many of us now with an uneasy sense that we are academic orphans. I remain unconvinced about the afterlife, but if there is one, John, I hope you are having a wonderful time, indeed I have no doubt that you are.