Joseph Lealand Johnson Biography (1895-1991)

African American
physiologist, physician

Joseph Lealand Johnson was the second African American to earn both a Ph.D. and an M.D. degree. Although his parents had been born into slavery in North Carolina, Johnson was able to secure an education and eventually became dean of the Howard University Medical School and chairman of its Department of Physiology. It was through his efforts that this department became a fully modernized place of research.

Johnson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 14, 1895. His parents had moved there from North Carolina and eventually had fourteen children.Johnson was the youngest of the ten that survived infancy. His father was alaborer who died when Johnson was two, and his mother supported the family asa midwife. Although the ten-year-old Johnson was so interested in the law that he would regularly cut school to attend trials at City Hall, he took the advice of his high school principal and applied for a scholarship in agronomyat Pennsylvania State University. "I knew I first had to get to college if Iwanted to study law," Johnson recalled later in an interview with Allen B. Weisse in Conversations in Medicine, "and this was the first step."

Upon admission, Johnson found himself to be the only black on the entire campus. His education was interrupted by World War I, and when Johnson discoveredthere were no officer training camps available to him as there were for hiswhite classmates, he wrote directly to the Secretary of War. The Secretary responded that a special camp was being formed at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Johnson joined up, was commissioned second lieutenant, and was assigned to the 350th Field Artillery at Fort Dix, New Jersey. After being honorably discharged in January, 1919, he returned to Penn State and received his B.S. degree in June of that year.

That autumn, Johnson began teaching at the Kansas Vocational and Industrial Institute in Topeka, Kansas, where he also was an assistant coach of the men'sbasketball team as well as coach of the women's basketball team. The next year he moved to Kansas City to teach general science and zoology at Lincoln High School. It was while attending a summer education course at the Universityof Chicago that Johnson first became interested in medicine as a way of helping the people of his poor Kansas City neighborhood called West Bottoms. "I got the feeling that those people were not getting the medical care that theyshould have because they couldn't afford it," Johnson explained to Weisse. "The idea struck me that I would go away and prepare myself thoroughly in medicine, and then come back to Kansas City and serve the people in the West Bottoms." With the help of the Lincoln High School principal who secured the backing of a wealthy friend, Johnson was able to resign from teaching and to dedicate himself to medical school.

By 1931, Johnson had earned his combined M. D. and Ph.D. degree in medicine and physiology at the University of Chicago. He was offered a physiology professorship at Howard University in Washington, D.C., by Dr. Numa P. G. Adams who had just become the first black dean of its medical school. Johnson accepted the offer, and it was under his guidance and direction that Howard's physiology department was completely revamped, renovated, and redirected into a modern facility where meaningful research could take place. When Dr. Adams diedsuddenly in 1940, Johnson became acting dean of Howard's medical school. In 1947 he became dean and remained in that position until 1955 when he returnedto full-time teaching and research in physiology . He retired in 1971.

Johnson was a member of the board of directors of the National Medical Association and a member of the Medico Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia. He also held memberships in the AAAS, NAACP, AMA, Foundation for Tropical Medicine, International College of Surgeons, Walter Reed Society, AmericanPhysiology Society, and was a fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences. Hewas a member of the honorary medical society, Alpha Omega Alpha, and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He also served as the 1960-61 Imhotep Conference Chairman. Johnson died of cancer in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1991.

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