Lives of the fellows

Ralph Hudson Johnson

b.3 December 1933 d.1 July 1993
BA Cantab(1955) MB BCh(1958) MA Cantab & Oxon(1961) DPhil Oxon(1965) MD Cantab & Oxon(1966) MRCP Glas(1974) DSc Glas(1975) FRSE(1976) FRCPG(1977) FRACP(1984) FRCP(1993)

Ralph Johnson was the son of Sydney Reynold Edward Johnson, a chartered electrical and mechanical engineer, and his wife Phyllis. Born in Sunderland, Co Durham, he was educated at the Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby, and at Rugby School where he was a foundation scholar. He then went up to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge University to study medicine; his undergraduate hospital being University College Hospital, London. House appointments at the hospital were followed by two years in the accident service at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, which was outstanding for the development of artificial respiration. It led to a long and fruitful collaboration with John M K Spalding, in the department of neurology, on the human autonomic nervous system and its disorders in poliomyelitis, spinal injury and peripheral neuropathy. He was awarded the Cambridge MD in 1966, having continued the theme in the Oxford MRC body temperature research unit while clinical assistant to Sir George Pickering [Munk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.464] and in the Oxford University department of neurology, under W Ritchie Russell [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI I, p.514]. He then obtained his Oxford DPhil and published, with Spalding, Disorders of the autonomic nervous system, Philadelphia, Davis, 1974 and Oxford, Blackwell Scientific Publications; a landmark in the subject. His passion for exploration led in the 1960s to a mountaineering and botanical expedition to Ecuador, and to the Atlas mountains, Israel and Jordan, which developed qualities of leadership and a scientific interest in adaptation to climatic extremes.

During these years he held a number of research fellowships and was dean of St Peter’s College, Oxford. The University honoured Ralph by matching his Cambridge MA and MD with the Oxford degrees. The deanship was seminal for his future career, disclosing an exceptional gift for administration and fund raising, and for inspiring young people in collaborative research. His deep concern for the welfare of chronic sick and disabled people outside the hospital environment was shared with his wife, Gillian née Keith, who had graduated from Oxford University and was a social worker and care manager. They married in 1970 and had two children, a son and a daughter.

In 1968 Ralph’s success, as dean of St Peter’s and his growing reputation in neurological research, took him to Glasgow University as Warden of Queen Margaret Hall and senior lecturer in the department of neurology, under J A Simpson. He soon established a research group, many of whom are now in senior academic posts. The main themes were adaptation of the autonomic and metabolic systems to thermal environment, exercise, and disease. Studies on post-exercise ketosis and its modification by physical training were particularly important and led to neural control of catecholamines and growth hormone, and so -by the chessboard logic that baffles non-clinical scientists - to epilepsy and migraine. His work was recognized by the Glasgow DSc and the Edinburgh FRS.

Early specialization in applied physiology and clinical neurology by-passed the usual training path of the young physician but the Glasgow College elected him to its membership in 1974, for published work, and he became a fellow in 1977. He was elected to the fellowship of the Royal Australasian College in 1984 and to that of the RCP London in 1993, in recognition of his distinguished contributions to medical research and education.

In 1977, Ralph was appointed professor of medicine and dean of Wellington Clinical School of Medicine in New Zealand. Although he was able to continue with limited neurological practise and to supervise research with a number of junior colleagues, this was a turning point in his career with administration and medical education becoming his dominant interests. The Wellington School was a newly established clinical school of Otago University and it was confidently expected that it would become an independent medical school. The dean was expected to push it as rapidly as possible to a stature justifying independent status. There is no doubt that Ralph was largely successful in doing so but the world recession, and a contemporary opinion that the western world was training too many doctors, arrested this development. Lesser men would have sat back and cursed fate, but Ralph turned his attention to fostering a new Diploma in Community Health (1981) and a department of post-basic nursing studies in collaboration with the Victoria University of Wellington.

Ralph Johnson was co-author of three books and contributor of chapters to many textbooks. His authority on the autonomic nervous system was internationally acknowledged but medical education was to become his main theme. In 1987 he was uniquely suited for appointment as director of postgraduate medical education and training in the University of Oxford, linked with a professorial fellowship of Wadham College and an honorary consultant post for neurological duties in the Nuffield department of medicine directed by Sir David Weatherall. As Sir David later wrote: ‘. . . for most of us a career in medicine is quite enough. But to someone of Ralph Johnson’s energy and enthusiasm, at least two seem barely enough to fill the day.’ In Ralph's short time at Oxford his innovatory work on postgraduate training became increasingly recognized. From 1989 he represented the university on the GMC and chaired the UK conference of postgraduate medical deans.

Ralph was nearing the consummation of his career as a medical statesman when he died suddenly in tragic circumstances. In the garden he loved, with his wife Gillian, his daughter Rachel and his son Mark, he died from an anaphylactic shock caused by a sting from one of his own bees.

J A Simpson

[The Times, 6 & 17 July 1993;The Independent, 10 July 1993; The Guardian, 14 July 1993; The Daily Telegraph, 12 July 1993; Sunday Mirror 4 July, 1993]

(Volume IX, page 275)

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