Ivan Roitt, 87, emeritus professor, “There was no conscious decision – I just went on working”

Ivan Roitt, 87, is emeritus professor at Middlesex University’s Centre for Investigative and Diagnostic Oncology. He lives in Finchley, north London, with his wife, Margaret. They have three daughters and six grandchildren.

There was no conscious decision – I just went on working. When I finished as head of immunology at University College London, after 25 years, a colleague asked if I would like to go to Middlesex University. I thought, “Let’s do something useful”, so I set up the cancer research centre – Ivan Roitt.

You can’t switch on wanting to do things like that. You’ve just got to be damned lucky that there is inside you this little engine, the mojo, the life force, prana, whatever they say in yoga. And knowing it is there, you might as well use it.

Doing research is exciting. The trouble is, you need money, and I spend a lot of time trying to squeeze it out of people. Part of my job is to get everything out of my university colleagues – I think of them like my children – in terms of tackling new research. And those attempts to inspire them act as intellectual stimuli to me. During the day, I don’t feel tired at all.

So I don’t want to give it up. I’m not waiting around on the incinerator. I don’t want to rot. Not as long as I have my life force. When you get to my age, you can’t help but think that there is something not too far away, that you are going to come to a stop, and I mean a real stop. It doesn’t depress me. I think if you approach it with humour, it can make it slightly easier. I’ve told everybody that at my funeral I want a song called Incinerator Flues, based on St James Infirmary Blues.

Margaret, my wife, prefers it if I keep to the two days a week that I go to the university and don’t bring too much work home. She wants us to be together – we’ve been married for 61 years.

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