JOHN VOLANAKIS 1938–2022
John Volanakis, a distinguished immunologist and the first Director of B.S.R.C. "Alexander Fleming" (1997–2002) passed away on 12 December 2022, at the age of 84. His legacy is not only in the field of Complement research that he served for over 30 years, but also in setting the basis for the development of FLEMING into a top-rated research institution in Greece.
John was appointed Director of FLEMING in the late 90's and starting with an empty building, he managed to quickly refurbish and equip laboratories and facilities, despite limited support, intermittent funding and bureaucratic hurdles. His most important contribution however was in setting the right principles for the Center's development, focusing on recruiting talented young investigators, with excellence as the main criterion, and allowing them total independence in developing their research programs. With foresight, he identified emerging trends in biomedicine and the need for state-of-the-art facilities and instrumentation, establishing FLEMING as a central hub for advanced technologies in Greece, from transgenesis to -omics. By the end of his 5-year term as director, FLEMING had many successful research teams, attracting competitive EU and local funding, publishing high impact papers and achieving top scores in government reviews. With health problems creeping in, John returned to the US and continued his research there for a few more years, always maintaining a keen interest in developments at the Center he was so instrumental in establishing.
Born in Thessaloniki in 1938, John Emmanuel Volanakis was raised and educated in Greece, graduating from the selective Varvakeion high school and then the Medical School of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. After completing his residency and earning his D. Med. at the University of Athens Medical School, he moved to the United States in 1968 to pursue further training in immunology and rheumatology at the Metropolitan Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, affiliated with Case Western Reserve University. He began his research career working on CRP, and he developed a strong interest in complement, which led him to pursue another fellowship in a complement lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 1971. He stayed for over twenty years there, rising through the ranks to full Professor of Medicine, Professor of Pathology, and Professor of Microbiology. In 1989 he was awarded the Anna Lois Waters endowed Chair of Medicine at UAB. He also served as a Visiting Scientist in the Department of Biochemistry, State University of Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1978, at the University of Oxford in 1985-86, and as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology at Mainz University in Germany in 1996. In 1997, Dr. Volanakis was appointed as the Founding President and Scientific Director at the Biomedical Sciences Research Center “Alexander Fleming” in Vari, Greece, and he served there for five years before returning to Birmingham, Alabama. Over the course of his career, Dr. Volanakis published more than two hundred papers in scientific journals and received many awards for his work, including a Merit Award from the National Institute of Health (1987), the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award for Senior Scientists (1996), an Honorary Doctorate in Medicine from the National University of Athens (2003), and a Gold Medal from the European Complement Network (2003).
Dr. Volanakis spent his final years in Nashville, Tennessee, and died there on December 12, 2022. He is succeeded by his two children: Emmanuel Volanakis, a pediatric oncologist on faculty at Vanderbilt University, and Marina Cofield, a leader in public education in New York City. He was also very proud of his four grandchildren Zoe, Yiannis, Cassius and Langston. He will be remembered for his generous and loving spirit, his big laugh and sense of humor, his love for bringing people together to share good food and wine, and most of all as an independent spirit and a man of great integrity, with a deep devotion to his family and loved ones.