Prof. John William Gibson Cairney, 1959–2012



Photo courtesy of the Australian Research Council.

The premature death of John Cairney on the 9 November 2012 brought heartfelt sadness to all who knew him. John was a quiet achiever with a reputation for his prolific publication record. He loved writing and published over 150 scientific papers and book chapters, the large majority of which focused on understanding the biology and ecology of ectomycorrhizal and ericoid mycorrhizal associations. He was an extremely humble man, who was incredibly clever yet modest in his knowledge, achievements and contribution to mycorrhizal sciences. He served as a member of the New Phytologist Advisory Board for a period of 10 years (1999–2010) and contributed to a total of 25 papers in New Phytologist, including two Tansley reviews (the most recent of which was published in 2012). He was also Consulting (1997–2002) and Section (2002–2007) Editor of Plant & Soil, Editor of Mycological Research (2002–2010), Editorial Board member of Fungal Ecology (2010–2012), Associate Editor of Fungal Biology (2010–2012) and Subject Editor of the Journal of Soils and Sediments (2010–2012).

The fact that John has been taken from us at such an early age is tragic – a massive blow to plant and fungal sciences and a massive blow to the family, friends and colleagues he leaves behind. In December 2011, John was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, which rapidly transformed into leukaemia. He endured high-intensity chemotherapy at the start of 2012, and subsequently went into remission such that he could undergo a successful bone marrow transplant in May. John's determination in his scientific career was echoed in his determination to beat his illness; ultimately, however, his disease got the better of him. Throughout the short time of his illness, he was extremely stoic, brave and determined to overcome it, and it is a tragedy that he did not win the battle.

John was born in 1959 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, UK, where he grew up before taking a biology degree at the University of Stirling. After completing his PhD in fungal physiology at the University of Liverpool (1986) under the supervision of David Jennings, he went to Australia to take up a research position with Anne Ashford at the University of New South Wales. This was followed by research positions in Aberdeen, UK (with Ian Alexander), and Adelaide, Australia (with Sally Smith), and a lectureship in Ecology at Leeds University, UK, before he took up his lecturing position at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), Australia, in 1994. John quickly demonstrated his excellence as a researcher and teacher and was promoted rapidly through the ranks to Senior Lecturer (1996), Associate Professor (1998) and Professor (2001) before he became Director of the Centre for Plants and the Environment (2007) – the precursor to the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at UWS.

John contributed enormously to our understanding of the biology and ecology of mycorrhizal symbioses. His early body of work focused on the structure and physiology of fungal rhizomorphs, which was followed by a move into studying the enzyme activities of mycorrhizal fungi and their role in the degradation of plant cell wall compounds. He then focused his efforts on deciphering the mechanisms involved in plant and mycorrhizal fungal tolerance to heavy metals, which resulted in numerous papers, including his paper in Nature on the potential role of mycorrhizal fungi in the remediation of arsenic-contaminated soils. The next stage of John's career made the most of the ‘molecular revolution’ and he produced a significant body of work on the population biology and ecology of ectomycorrhizal and ericoid mycorrhizal fungi. This included a large amount of work on the ectomycorrhizal fungal genus Pisolithus.

John was an active member of the ‘mycorrhizal community’ and served as a member of the organising committee of the 3rd International Conference on Mycorrhizas (ICOM3) held in Adelaide in 2001 and he was a long-serving member of the British Mycological Society, including a period as an elected Member of Council (1994–1996). He was a fantastic mentor to numerous PhD students, including myself, who were fortunate enough to be trained under his guidance. He taught his students the fun of science, the value of publishing, and how to make significant contributions to science even if resources are limited. John leaves a wife (Susan Chambers) with whom he has co-authored many scientific papers and three children (Kirsty, Angus and Ian), as well as a long list of colleagues and friends who all will miss him dearly. Outside work his passion was cycling. He also loved Bob Dylan and Dougie MacLean and it is no surprise that he wanted the music of both played at his funeral service. He was taken too early but he contributed an enormous amount to mycorrhizal sciences and his work will continue to have an impact and be cited well into the future. John's death leaves a massive gap for those who were close to him, but the humble, warm-hearted and youthful John Cairney will always be remembered.