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Mike Pittilo MBE, principal and vice-chancellor of Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University for the past five years, has died aged 55.

He had kept the true extent of his cancer quiet, continuing to work until days before his death.

Born in Edinburgh and educated at Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow, Professor Pittilo studied biology at Strathclyde University before embarking on a career in higher education.

It started in 1976, when he became an electron microscopist at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, before moving to a post as an Agricultural Research Council-funded research assistant at the North East London Polytechnic, where he completed a PhD in 1981 on protozoan parasites in poultry.

After postdoctoral research on arterial disease at the University of London, he was appointed to Kingston University, where he became Head of Life Sciences. In 1995, he became Foundation Dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences at Kingston University and St George's Medical School (University of London), where he established a new faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences. He was appointed Pro vice-chancellor at the University of Hertfordshire in 2001.

Professor Pittilo also chaired Department of Health working groups regulating areas including acupuncture, traditional Chinese and herbal medicine. He was a trustee for the Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health and was awarded an MBE in the 2009 New Year's Honours List for his services to health.

He was a member of the executive committee and main committee of Universities Scotland and convener of its learning and teaching committee, and represented Universities UK on various bodies, including Women in Academic Medicine and the Skills for Health Group reviewing careers in Biomedical Science.

His Aberdeen interests included posts as patron of the Aberdeen branch of the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences, and honorary president of the Aberdeen History Society. He was also a member of the north-east committee of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, a non-executive director of Scottish Enterprise Grampian and the Scottish Traditional Skills Centre and served on the board of Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future.

Professor Pitillo, who was the author of various publications on parasitology and atherosclerosis, enjoyed hillwalking, photography and clay pigeon shooting as well as music and the cinema.

He is survived by his wife, GP Carol Blow.

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