Dr. Michael V. Johnston, former chief medical officer and executive vice president at the Kennedy Krieger Institute who enjoyed sailing summers in Maine, died of pancreatic cancer July 30 at his home in The Orchards neighborhood of North Baltimore. He was 76.
“I’ve known Mike 40 years and I recruited him when I was at the University of Michigan where we were for 10 years, and then when I came to Kennedy Krieger,” said Dr. Gary W. Goldstein, who was president and CEO of Kennedy Krieger from 2008 until 2018, when he retired.
“He was absolutely brilliant and was the most productive in the country when it came to pediatric neurology,” Dr. Goldstein said. “He was so smart and he contributed so much to the field. Everyone knew who he was in the field of pediatric neurology.”
Dr. Ali Fatemi, the current chief medical officer at Kennedy Krieger, said, “Mike was a mentor, he was the guy who gave them ideas, and he stood behind his people.”
“He was a caring, deep thinker and a strategic person. You’d go in for advice, and Mike would sit back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and then would go through various scenarios,” Dr. Fatemi said. “His position necessitated that kind of personality.”
Michael VanDoren Johnston was born in Pittsburgh into a medical family. His father was Dr. Eugene Johnston, and his mother, Naomi Johnston, was a registered nurse. Together, the couple maintained a private practice from their home in Christiana, Pennsylvania, a small town near Lancaster.
From a young age, Dr. Johnston wanted to pursue a medical career and accompanied his father on house calls to patients living on the farms that surround Christiana, many of which were owned by the Amish. As a youngster, he helped his father fashion a hitching post which they placed in front of their house to allow Amish patients a place to secure their horses and buggies when they arrived for medical visits.
In 1963, he graduated as valedictorian from Octorara High School. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967 from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
While at college, he met his future wife, the former Susan “Sally” Saunders, a college student from Chatham College in Pittsburgh and a member of its visiting choir, who had traveled to F&M to perform the opera “Dido and Aeneas.”
The couple liked to say that it was their mutual love of opera and music that brought them together. They married in 1968 in Pittsburgh, where Dr. Johnston was attending the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
After graduating first in his class in 1971, the couple moved to Baltimore, where Dr. Johnston completed an internship and residency in pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Upon completion of his residency, Dr. Johnston was drafted into the Army, and after serving for two years in the Army Office of the Surgeon General, returned to Hopkins in 1976 where he completed a residency in neurology.
“Dr. Johnston was drawn to pediatric neurology because he was fascinated by the brain and saw enormous potential in the field for new discoveries,” according to a biographical profile submitted by his family. “It was during this time that he worked in the laboratory of Dr. Joseph T. Coyle, where their work resulted in the discovery of the role of nucleus basalis in the developing brain.”
In 1980, Dr. Johnston left Hopkins and joined the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, where he “conducted pivotal research into the role of glutamate in hypoxic ischemic brain injury and its effects on the developing brain,” according to the profile.
Seven years later, he was promoted to full professor of pediatrics and neurology at Michigan, a position he held until 1988, when he was recruited by his longtime friend and former Michigan colleague Dr. Goldstein to work at Kennedy Krieger.
In addition to his research and work with talented clinicians and researchers, Dr. Johnston, who was senior vice president, held several positions, including chief medical officer of the Kennedy Krieger Institute and director of the institute’s Division of Neurology and Developmental Medicine and the Neuroscience Laboratory. He was also an attending physician at Hopkins Hospital and Kennedy Krieger’s Children’s Hospital.
“His research into strokes in children and cerebral palsy translated into treatment,” Dr. Goldstein said.
Dr. Fatemi said: “Mike had great curiosity in how the brain develops and how it works. He was a very scientifically attuned person and was internationally known for his work.”
Dr. Johnston also saw and treated patients who often had rare and complex neurological disorders, according to the profile.
Dr. Fatemi recalled that when snowstorms and blizzards paralyzed the city, it was Dr. Johnston who rose to the occasion and would drive his SUV to the homes of his staff.
“He’d say, ‘We can’t shut down the hospital,’ so he’d take them to work and then back home. I think he drove an old Chevy Blazer,” Dr. Fatemi said. “That’s the kind of person Mike was.”
A social person, Dr. Johnston liked welcoming the new residents.
“He’d have two parties at his home to welcome the new residents and another party during the year,” Dr. Fatemi said. “Mike liked to travel and he liked making connections all across the world.”
During his tenure at Kennedy Krieger, he helped grow the institution into a world leader in research and clinical care of children with neurologic and developmental disorders.
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He retired in 2019.
“His death is a big loss, but Mike leaves behind a legacy of the hundreds of people he had trained,” Dr. Fatemi said.
He had been a board member of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and had been the organization’s president in 2007. His work brought him great recognition and many awards, including the Bernard Sachs Award from the Child Neurology Society in 2008, the Blum/Moser Award Endowed Chair for Pediatric Neurology at Kennedy Krieger in 2009 and the Frank Ford Lecture Award from the International Child Neurology Association in 2015.
In addition to being a lifelong opera fan and attending performances of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Dr. Johnston was an avid sailor. He kept Miss 50, an old Owens that he named for the year it was built, in the Inner Harbor.
He also enjoyed family vacations at Rangeley, Maine, where he had vacationed as a boy, and where he also liked sailing on Casco Bay. He was also an accomplished carpenter.
Dr. Johnson was a member of Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St., Guilford, where funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 20.
In addition to his wife of 54, years, retired executive director of The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, he is survived by three sons, Joseph S. “Joe” Johnston, a lawyer, of Cockeysville; Dr. Peter V. “Pete” Johnston of North Baltimore; Dr. James C. “Jamie” Johnston of Cockeysville, and eight grandchildren.