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Dr. Richard T. Johnson, Johns Hopkins scientist and physician, dies

Dr. Richard T. Johnson, pioneer in global central nervous system infection research, died.

Dr. Richard Tidball Johnson, a scientist and physician who was a pioneer in research on global central nervous system infection, died of pneumonia Nov. 22 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he served for decades. The Roland Park resident was 84.

Recalled as a gifted lecturer who could discuss a complicated subject with ease, he was a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and also served at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"He was a brilliant, comfortable guy who carried his gifts so easily," said Dr. Paul McHugh, former Hopkins psychiatrist-in-chief. "He was an internationally renowned scientist who never showed off about it. He loved Hopkins and kept turning down high-status jobs elsewhere."

Born in the Grosse Point section of Detroit, Mich., he was the son of Horton Johnson, who sold beef, and his wife, Katharine, a homemaker and kindergarten teacher. He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Colorado and medical degree at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora.

"He was such an outgoing guy. He loved being with people," said his wife, Sylvia Eggleston Wehr.

Dr. Johnson continued his studies at the Stanford University Hospitals, Harvard University, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he had a residency.

Colleagues said that in the late 1960s Hopkins physicians, including Dr. Vernon Mountcastle, wanted to create a department of neurology. They narrowed their choices to two — and hired both — Dr. Johnson and Dr. Guy McKhann. Both had known each other from their days at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Johnson came to Hopkins in 1969. He served as the hospital's neurologist-in-chief until 1997.

"Dick was the research head and I was the administrator," said Dr. McKhann, who lives in Ruxton. "He had spent two years at Walter Reed and there he got involved with research involving infections of the nervous system. He went on to invent the field of neurovirology. He formed a lab at Hopkins that was filled with unbelievably good people. They were very productive. Patients from all over came to him with mysterious and strange infections."

Dr. Justin McArthur, a director of the Hopkins Department of Neurology, recalled his colleague.

"He was a true storyteller. It was part of his charm and his legacy. It was just a natural process with him," said Dr. McArthur, "He traveled so much we called him the Pan Am professor. He came back with amazing stories that he wove into his charismatic and engaging lectures."

Dr. Johnson, who spoke Spanish, spent time in Lima, Peru. While making rounds at a hospital in the 1980s, he observed children with measles, some of whom had neurological complications that were not well understood medically.

"He saw this as a research opportunity," said Dr. Diane E. Griffin, a Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor. "It was a condition we couldn't study in the U.S."

The president and minister of health in Peru later conferred him with the Order of Hipolito Unanue.

Dr. Griffin recalled that he also studied the complications associated with a rabies vaccine used in Thailand.

"His ability to communicate endeared him to his patients and his scientific colleagues," she said. "He was never afraid."

He also visited Papua New Guinea, where members of the Fore Highlander practiced a form of cannibalism and consumed the brains of deceased family members. The practice is connected to the deadly Kuru disease.

Dr. McKhann said that as his work progressed, he became involved with HIV research. Then Gov. William Donald Schaefer named him to head a state HIV panel in 1991.

"He was much involved with other people who were trying to figure this new infection out," said Dr. McKhann. "He was there at the beginning when it was an unknown infection."

Dr. Johnson also studied mad cow disease, encephalitis and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

"He loved traveling and wherever he could go, he went," said Dr. Daniel B. Drachman, a fellow Hopkins neurologist. "He would see new places, see new things and come back with new stories."

His students named him to the Ford Award twice for his clinical teaching. He was the author of "Viral Infections of the Nervous System," a text published in 1982, and wrote hundreds of scientific articles.

Among his many awards were the 1986 Multiple Sclerosis Medal from Association of British Neurologists; the 1993 Victor and Clara Soriano Award from the World Federation of Neurology; and the 1999 Pioneer Award from the International Society of Neurovirology.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

In addition to his wife of five years, survivors include three sons, Carlton Johnson of Winter Park, Fla., Matthew Johnson and Nathan Johnson, both of Los Angeles; a daughter, Erica Meadows of Baltimore and Kosovo; a brother, Dr. Horton Johnson of New York; three step-daughters, Elizabeth Drigotas of Baltimore, Anne Broadus of Ruxton and Elaine Doherty of St. Louis, Mo.; five grandchildren; and six step-grandchildren. His wife of more than 50 years, Frances Wilcox Johnson, died in 2008.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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