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an online version of the magazine Fall 2007
Where Are They Now?

Sixty-Five Years of Tinkering

Richard Johns
Photo by Mike Ciesielski
> Under Johns’ leadership, collegiality reigned in biomedical engineering.

From the moment he arrived at the School of Medicine in 1944, Dick Johns was no typical MD. Today, this grand elder statesman stands as an institutional icon.


Who’d have thought it? Travel the halls of Hopkins these days and you can find yourself face to face with a cabal of high-powered businessmen scrutinizing the labs for research discoveries that might be marketable. Even more surprising? Scientists seem eager to talk to them.

These two camps have been getting together regularly, thanks to the entrepreneurial inventiveness of 83-year-old Distinguished Service Professor Richard Johns ’48. Johns, who spent 21 years shaping the first Department of Biomedical Engineering here and turned it into a national model, has become something of a senior advisor at the School of Medicine. Realizing that faculty scientists need help when it came to commercializing their research, in 2004, he used his long connections with the corporate world to concoct a program. The Johns Hopkins Medicine Alliance for Science and Technology pairs researchers with business-savvy mentors who understand the marketplace. “It’s an opportunity if they want to take it,” he says matter-of-factly.

Johns made the rounds of all 29 School of Medicine departments to introduce his program and then recruited stars from industry to take part. It was par for the course for this Hopkins icon. An internal medicine specialist who switched gears midcareer at the end of the 1960s to take over Biomedical Engineering, he is a legendary leader. Even today, operational dictums Johns introduced remain ingrained in the culture of the department he directed.

A native of eastern Oregon, Dick Johns arrived at Hopkins for medical school in 1944 and, except for two years in the army, has been here ever since. From the get-go, this was no typical physician. With a degree in physics from the University of Oregon and a love for mechanical tinkering, Johns signed on to work as a lab tech for Sam Talbot, the faculty member in charge of a biomedical engineering subdivision in the Department of Medicine that made research and clinical tools. Johns quickly began understanding the intricacies of developing devices for taking physiological measurements.

Meanwhile, during Hopkins’ great post-war era in medicine, as a resident on the Osler Service, Johns forged connections that would last a lifetime. One assistant resident, Richard S. Ross, who became his closest friend, went on to serve as dean of the School of Medicine from 1976 to 1991. Today, the two emeritus professors have offices next door to each other in the 1830 Building on Monument Street. Ross says of 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. He should have been dean of this medical school instead of me, but for reasons that are unclear, that’s not the way it worked out.”

Johns’ other profound relationship from those years was with the woman who became his wife—fellow resident Carol Johnson. The couple’s very first date hit the gossip circuit, Johns recounts, when they happened to run into their chief resident, the late and legendary Victor McKusick, in a supermarket. McKusick quickly understood that romance was blooming on the Osler Service, and abandoned his shopping cart to rush back to the hospital with the news. Johns and Johnson married after residency and both joined the Department of Medicine.

“We really understood each other and the obligations of being a faculty member,” Johns says. “We were best friends.” Both loved sailing and the couple became famous for their trips up and down the Atlantic Coast. Carol Johns, an expert in lung disease, who served as an assistant dean at Hopkins and also spent the 1979-80 academic year as interim president of her alma mater, Wellesley College, passed away in 2000. Dick Johns still owns a 30-foot boat that’s docked on the Eastern Shore and takes it out when he can with their three sons, Jim, Rich, and Bob, and their families.

Scores of faculty members recount tales of sailing with Johns. One, Murray Sachs, who succeeded Johns as Director of Biomedical Engineering, recalls a windless morning in 1980 when the engine conked out. “It took Dick about half an hour to fix it,” Sachs says. “He had every spare part you could possibly need—just one more demonstration of what a marvelous organizer he is and how meticulous he is about everything.”

The only time Johns considered leaving Hopkins came in 1965. As a recognized clinician and biomedical engineering researcher, he was offered the chairmanship of medicine at a prestigious Southern institution (which he prefers not to name). Just at that moment, though, his old mentor Talbot departed for the University of Alabama, and a Hopkins committee proposed Johns for the directorship of what was slated to become a new Department of Biomedical Engineering within the School of Medicine. “I thought about it,” he recalls, “and this was a much more exciting opportunity to me.”

Johns took over BME in 1969 and began acting as the School of Medicine’s liaison with the University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. When Wilmer chief Arnold Patz shared his frustration about limitations of the ruby laser that ophthalmologists relied on for eye surgery, Johns referred the challenge to APL. Researchers there developed the helium-argon-laser, which quickly became state-of-the-art for retinal surgery in patients with diabetes. By then, Johns’ own BME researchers were spearheading discoveries in the hearing sciences and cardiology. In 1994, when U.S. News & World Report started ranking medical school departments around the nation, BME at Hopkins earned a No. 1 spot. It has held that position ever since.

But Johns’ most lasting contributions may well be the even-handed management style and commitment to mentoring he became famous for. Says Sachs, “He established a department with a deep sense of collegiality.”

Meeting one on one with faculty members, Johns would ask how they were doing and how the department should be improving. Then, in group sessions he would list the strengths and weaknesses on the lower left-hand side of the blackboard and the goals in the upper right-hand corner and map a route from one end to the other. No decision ever came down to a vote—Johns believed in consensus. And what that meant, says long-time faculty member Larry Schramm, is that this was “a department that never dissolved into cliques or factions.”

Today, this legacy gives Johns a quiet satisfaction. “Linking faculty with opportunities,” he says, matters a lot to him. That’s why he continues to put energy into programs like the Alliance. For 24 years, he’s also acted as an editor for six editions of the celebrated Osler’s Principles and Practice of Medicine, and he serves on the board of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a NASA project focused on studying problems connected with weightlessness like cosmic radiation exposure and bone loss.

Asked what’s driven him all these years, Johns gives one of his typically dry responses: “Everyone has certain responsibilities in life,” he says. “For me, one part was becoming a very good physician, then a good teacher and researcher. After that, I wanted to create a first-rate department. It’s very important to me to do my best to discharge my responsibilities.”  star


Kate Ledger

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