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The Pan Am Professor

Johnson invented the field of neurovirology.

So widely did internationally renowned neurologist Richard T. Johnson roam the globe to teach and establish infectious disease laboratories that he affectionately became known as the “Pan Am Professor,” a nickname derived from the old international airline, Pan American.

Johnson, credited with inventing the field of neurovirology—the study of viruses that infect the nervous system—and director of the Department of Neurology from 1988 to 1997, died at The Johns Hopkins Hospital on Nov. 22, 2015, of pneumonia. He was 84 and had been active up until the last weeks of his life, giving lectures at medical centers around the nation and world.

Also a professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Johnson mentored more than 55 postdoctoral fellows in virology, neurology, immunology and neurovirology. At least 10 of his protégés became heads of their own departments. He also served on the faculties of medical schools in Australia, Germany, Iran, Peru and Thailand.

“He influenced literally hundreds, if not thousands, of medical students, undergraduates and postdoctoral fellows through his charismatic and spellbinding lectures, and through direct mentoring,” says Justin McArthur (HS, medicine, neurology, 1980–85), current head of Johns Hopkins’ Department of Neurology.      

He was on the neurology faculty at Case Western Reserve in 1969 when he was recruited to join neurologist Guy McKhann (HS, pediatrics, 1956–57) of Stanford to found Johns Hopkins’ Department of Neurology. “I took over running the department, and Dick built up the research side,” recalls McKhann, whom Johnson succeeded as director.

“Dick, known as RTJ, essentially invented the field of neurovirology,” McKhann says. “He was involved in early studies of AIDS, the agent involved in Kuru [a fatal, degenerative brain disease], mad cow disease and various forms of encephalitis.”

Johnson won awards for teaching and was a prolific researcher, publishing more than 300 professional journal articles and book chapters. He edited 10 books and wrote Viral Infections of the Nervous System, a landmark text first published in 1982. 

The Pan Am Professor