Dr. Richard J. Johns, Johns Hopkins biomedical engineer, dies

Dr. Richard J. Johns, the founding director of Johns HopkinsÕ Department of Biomedical Engineering
Dr. Richard J. Johns, the founding director of Johns HopkinsÕ Department of Biomedical Engineering (Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Dr. Richard J. Johns, a Johns Hopkins physician and teacher who was founding director of its Department of Biomedical Engineering, died of dementia complications Nov. 29 at his home in Guilford. He was 95.

Born and raised in Pendleton, Oregon, he was the son of James Shanard Johns and Mary Pearl McKenna.


A family biography said he developed his love for music and engineering early. His mother once took away his toy steam engine when he didn’t practice piano. He played the French horn in the orchestra of the Happy Canyon Night Show of the Pendleton Round-Up, a rodeo.

His family said Dr. Johns also developed his sense of adventure. As a 10-year-old, he and friends charged a pound of black powder to his mother’s account at a hardware store.


“As he walked home to continue the adventure, it occurred to the hardware store clerk that perhaps it had not been wise to sell Dick Johns explosives for unsupervised use, so the clerk called the police, who met him when he arrived home,” said his son, Dr. James A. Johns of Nashville.

His son said, “It was there that Dick had one of his earliest successes in building consensus and compromise, reaching an agreement that he and his friends could spread the black powder in the garden and ignite it with the dynamite fuse under his mother’s supervision.”

He graduated from Pendleton High School in 1942 and began studies at the University of Oregon. He majored in physics, and when he completed his course work early, he moved on to Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which had waived its requirement for a bachelor’s degree during World War II.

“Arriving by train in Baltimore in June 1944, at the age of 18, wearing a wool suit in the summer heat, he was not sure he had made the right decision, but he adapted and stuck with it,” his son said. “The medical curriculum was accelerated during the war. After my father completed his accelerated first year of medical school in March 1945, the normal schedule was resumed.”

He worked with Dr. Sam Talbot, an early mentor in biomedical engineering, a field that would later shape Dr. Johns’ career.

After graduating from Hopkins’ medical school in 1948, he enlisted in the Army and served at the Edgewood Arsenal and Dougway Proving Grounds in Utah, studying the effects of nerve gas in animals.

After his military service, he returned to Hopkins and met his future wife, a fellow Hopkins resident, Carol Johnson. They married in 1953.

Between 1968 and 1988, he edited six editions of “The Principles and Practice of Medicine,” known as the Osler Textbook of Medicine, first published by Sir William Osler in 1892.

“Richard Johns, together with his wife, Carol Johns, represented much of what is so special about Johns Hopkins. They were brilliant, collaborative, generous, visionary and relentlessly productive,” said Dr. Mark E. Anderson, director of the Department of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In 1966, Dr. Johns became the first director of biomedical engineering, which became a full department in the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins in 1970 and subsequently became a department in the School of Engineering.

His department is ranked the No. 1 biomedical engineering program by US News and World Report. He established a close collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

His son said his father’s early research elucidated the mechanisms of myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder, and developed instrumentation and techniques for studying the neuromuscular junction.


Dr. Johns’ later work included the invention of the transcutaneous pO2 electrode, a noninvasive way of measuring blood oxygen, as well as a transcutaneous glucose sensor.

As early as 1970, Dr. Johns was working on the development of an electronic medical record.

Dr. Richard Ross, the former dean of the School of Medicine, who died in 2015, once said of Dr. Johns: “He is probably the smartest and most innovative person I’ve ever met. He can just move into any situation and say, ‘This is the way we’re going to go.’ ”

“My father was also known for his ability to build consensus and lead by example, within the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the School of Medicine, the Whiting School of Engineering, and the university,” his son said.

Dr. Johns remained active at Hopkins into his 80s and led the formation of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Alliance for Science and Technology in 2004.

Although he was the author of numerous scientific articles, he also wrote a satire, “How to Swim with Sharks,” about the management of in academic settings.

He was named to what is now the National Academy of Medicine in 1986 and received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Johns Hopkins in 2009. Hopkins had previously named him a University Distinguished Service Professor.

Dr. Johns was an avid Chesapeake Bay sailor. While in his 70s, he sailed with three others across the Atlantic from the British Virgin Islands to Portugal.

He supported the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, regularly attending concerts until he was 90.

His wife of 47 years, Dr. Carol Johns, a professor of medicine and a specialist in sarcodiosis, died in 2000.

In addition to his son, survivors include two other sons, Richard C. Johns of Punta Gorda, Florida, and Robert S. Johns of Bonita Springs, Florida; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

A memorial service will be planned for a later time.

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