Professor John Usher - Lecturer in law

Born: 12 August, 1945, in Hyde, Cheshire. Died: 13 September, 2008, in Exeter, Devon, aged 63.

PROFESSOR John Usher, who died last month soon after being diagnosed with leukaemia, spent 14 years of his professional life at the University of Edinburgh, first as lecturer and later as Salvesen professor of European institutions. He was a man of encyclopaedic learning, always ready to share his knowledge with colleagues and students. As one of them said: "More than once I would ask him if he had heard of a 20-year-old judgment from an obscure court of first instance in an obscure provincial corner of France. Five minutes later he'd be at the door with a copy of the judgment plus an article he'd written on it."

Usher's outward style was rather dry and at first he may have seemed very serious – which he was, about things that mattered. But he had a wry sense of humour and he shared with his wife, Jean, a deep knowledge and love of music.

He was an accomplished cellist and was happiest with his family and friends, making music, going to a concert or walking in the country.

A colleague said: "He was a self-effacing and extraordinarily nice bloke. And there are far worse epitaphs."

After graduating in law at the University of Newcastle in 1966, Usher won a scholarship to study French private law at the University of Nancy. He then went to the University of Exeter as assistant to Professor Dominik Lasok. At that time, Edinburgh and Exeter were the only universities in the UK that took seriously the study of European law and institutions.

Soon after the UK joined the European Economic Community, Usher took a research post at the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, and was quickly recruited by the first British advocate general, Jean Pierre Warner QC, as his legal secretary. With the British judge Lord Mackenzie-Stuart, Warner had the task of introducing our conceptions of law to rather suspicious continental colleagues and EEC law to an equally suspicious British audience.

The advocate general has the privilege of setting out his own view of the law in his own way. Warner's outstanding contribution was to explain, and embed in European jurisprudence, British conceptions of procedural fairness. His industry and knowledge of comparative law provided essential support behind the scenes.

At that time, most of the work of the European Court concerned technical problems of customs, restrictions on imports and exports, and the minutiae of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Few academics found these topics entrancing, but they were meat and drink to Usher. He said of himself that he was a black-letter lawyer and he made himself a world expert in aspects of European law that called for constant attention to detail and precise knowledge of mind-numbing texts in several languages – agriculture, company law and all aspects of tax and finance.

He brought these skills to Edinburgh in 1978 as lecturer to Professor John Mitchell, the pioneer of European studies in the UK. Prof Mitchell died suddenly in 1980, just when financial constraints had begun to bite, so Usher had the responsibility, with the indefatigable departmental secretary Margaret Ainslie, of maintaining the work and reputation of Prof Mitchell's Centre of European Governmental Studies (now the Europa Institute), including an annual training course for the Civil Service College.

From Edinburgh, Usher went briefly to University College London until, in 1986, he succeeded Prof Lasok in the chair at Exeter. There his national and international reputation became firmly established. He published extensively on his favourite technical topics and on wider aspects of European law, never forgetting that students need accessible books with clear exposition.

He was constantly in demand as a visiting professor, a speaker at conferences and, perhaps especially, as a specialist adviser to parliaments, governments and companies in Britain, Europe and North America. His scholarly and practical distinction was fittingly recognised when he was called to the English Bar and simultaneously elected an honorary bencher of Lincoln's Inn in 1993, and elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1998.

Edinburgh was happy to be able to lure him back as Salvesen professor and director of the Europa Institute in 1995. He maintained the institute's "town and gown" tradition and was unfailingly generous in encouraging the work and ideas of younger colleagues. Almost immediately on his return he served with quiet efficiency a three-year term as dean of law, never shirking his teaching load.

He had heroically undertaken another term as dean when Exeter made him an offer he could not refuse. He returned to Exeter in 2004, and was about to take early retirement when leukaemia struck.

Usher is survived by his wife and two sons, one of whom was born in Luxembourg. The bureaucrats said he could not be called Alastair because that was not a saint's name. Usher took them on and won, thereby anticipating a ruling of the European Court by about 25 years.