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‘Father of Neurovirology’ Richard T. Johnson, MD, Dies at 84



DR. RICHARD T. JOHNSON (1931-2015)

Colleagues of Richard T. Johnson, MD, who died at age 84, share their memories of the man physicians widely regarded as one of the fathers of the field of neurovirology.

Richard Tidball Johnson, MD, a pioneering researcher widely credited with inventing the field of neurovirology, died of pneumonia on November 22 at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 84.

Dr. Johnson was a distinguished professor and past director of the department of neurology at Johns Hopkins University with a joint appointment in the department of immunology and infectious diseases in the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health, and past president of the American Neurological Association. Although he retired as department chair in 1997, he continued to see patients in the clinic, consult on difficult cases, and lecture at medical schools and hospitals nationally and internationally until the last weeks of his life.

Longtime friends and colleagues remembered Dr. Johnson as a gifted researcher, a leader in the study of infections of the central nervous system, a generous mentor, and a lively presence at neurology meetings.

Dr. Johnson, known to friends and colleagues as Dick, “was an extraordinarily gifted person. He was a very good scientist, and he essentially invented the field of neurovirology. People came from all over the world to work with him,” said Guy McKhann, MD, a professor of neurology and neuroscience in the Center for Mind-Body Research at Hopkins, who co-founded the neurology department with Dr. Johnson in 1968. They jointly led the department for two decades.

“Directly or indirectly, he has trained almost everybody who is in the field,” said Avindra Nath, MBBS, FAAN, chief of the Section of Infections of the Nervous System and clinical director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, who coauthored an obituary for Dr. Johnson published in the Annals of Neurology with Justin MacArthur, MBBS, MPH, FAAN, FANA, now director of the department of neurology at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Nath recalled an interaction with Dr. Johnson that shaped his own outlook as a clinician. At the time, Dr. Nath was a faculty member at Hopkins. On one of his first days in the clinic, “I realized there were no nurses or anyone else to help room patients in the clinic. I mentioned that to Dr. Johnson. He said, ‘The reason for that is that the neurological examination starts in the waiting room.’”

“When you first greet the patient, shake their hand, see how they stand up, interact with you, and walk to the patient room, already half your exam is done,” Dr. Johnson told Dr. Nath. “In that informal setting, you can notice a lot of things about a patient.”

“He wasn't all work,” Dr. McKhann added, citing Dr. Johnson's reputation as a gifted ballroom dancer. As a student at the University of Colorado, Dr. Johnson danced competitively to help pay for school. “He loved to dance. It wasn't uncommon for the rugs to get rolled up at his house and we'd all dance,” Dr. McKhann said.

And he was tireless at meetings, Dr. Nath recalled. “He could get off the plane halfway around the world, have meetings all day, and be standing up for dinner late at night. Later in life, he had some breathing difficulties, so he was told he needed to take an oxygen tank with him. That didn't stop him from traveling.”

A gifted storyteller, “it was always fun to be in his presence because you were sure to enjoy your time and learn something,” said David B. Clifford, MD, FAAN, the Melba and Forest Seay professor of clinical neuropharmacology in neurology and a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who interacted with Dr. Johnson through his work on the neurologic impact of AIDS. “He was a fascinating person and conversationalist. I'm sure a big part of his success was his interest in and his caring about people, which really shone through in his personality.”

Dr. Johnson graduated cum laude from the University of Colorado in Boulder and earned his medical degree at the University of Colorado in Denver in 1956. He interned at Stanford University Hospitals in San Francisco, then joined the department of virus diseases at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where he studied herpes simplex viruses, arthropod-borne viruses, and enterovirus infections of the nervous system. He completed a residency in neurology and a fellowship in neuropathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, then spent two years at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra, Australia, as a fellow of the US Public Health Service.

He joined the faculty of the department of neurology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1964 before moving to Johns Hopkins in 1969 to establish the department of neurology with Dr. McKhann. He served as the hospital's neurologist-in-chief until 1997.

At Johns Hopkins, Dr. Johnson was one of the first to build a truly multidisciplinary team, said Janice E. Clements, PhD, vice dean for faculty and a professor of molecular and comparative pathobiology, neurology, and pathology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who joined Dr. Johnson's lab as a postdoctoral fellow in 1975.

“Dick was an incredible mentor. Some people mentor so that they can get something out of it; Dick mentored because he loved it. He loved to see young people succeed in some new area,” she said.

Dr. Johnson also served on the faculties of medical schools in Australia, Germany, Iran, Peru, and Thailand, which earned him the affectionate nickname, “the Pan-Am professor.” He studied the neurologic complications of measles in Peru, complications associated with a rabies vaccine used in Thailand, and the deadly Kuru disease linked to ritual cannibalism in the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea. He received numerous national and international awards, including the inaugural Association of British Neurologists Multiple Sclerosis Medal in 1986, the first Soriano Award from the World Federation of Neurology in 1993, and the first Pioneer Award from the International Society for Neurovirology in 1999.

He coauthored more than 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals, wrote several book chapters, and edited 16 books. He published the single-author book Viral Infections of the Nervous System (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins) in 1982.

“He will be missed tremendously,” said Dr. Nath. “I don't think there will be another person on this planet who can ever fill his shoes, but his memory and contributions will last forever.”

Dr. Johnson is survived by his wife of five years, Sylvia Eggleston Wehr; three sons, Carlton, Matthew, and Nathan; daughter Erica Meadows; his brother, Dr. Horton Johnson; three step-daughters, Elizabeth Drigotas, Anne Broadus, and Elaine Doherty; five grandchildren; and six step-grandchildren. His wife of more than 50 years, Frances Wilcox Johnson, died in 2008.


•. Research by Richard T. Johnson, MD, on PubMed