Leonard R. Johnson

Leonard R. Johnson, PhD FAPS

I have always felt I had a distinct advantage spending formative years growing up during the 1950’s in a rural community like Munster, Indiana, just outside Chicago. It provided a wonderful environment for activities like Boy Scouts and summer baseball, as well as access to strong academic programs at nearby Hammond High School, where I graduated in 1959.   I chose to attend college at Wabash, a small liberal arts college for men located in Crawfordsville, Indiana. After a less than propitious first semester, I learned how to study, became interested in scholarly activities and did well with a major in zoology and minors in chemistry and English literature. I spent two summers working in a local steel mill, near the Republic Steel Corporation where my father worked. A major turning point was my decision to apply for a summer research fellowship in the physiology department at the University of Michigan, touted as the best physiology department in the country.  Awarding of the fellowship led to a terrific summer, with me falling in love with research and physiology, and being offered a full fellowship for graduate studies at Michigan.

My graduate studies included a research rotation in the laboratory of Dr. Horace W. Davenport, chairman of the department with an imposing 6’8” statue and a photographic memory and widely considered brilliant but not easy going. Other students avoided his laboratory, and I was his first graduate student. Asking to work with him was probably the best decision I could have made, though I didn’t know it at the time, for he was the first of three wonderful and influential men who mentored me through my early career as a scientist and academician. Under Davenport’s tutelage I measured histamine release from injured gastric mucosa, published 3 papers, wrote my thesis and received a Ph.D. in June of 1967.

Dr. Davenport suggested Dr. Morton I. Grossman at UCLA, as a postdoc mentor (another fortuitous choice for me), stating simply that Dr. Grossman was “the best GI physiologist in the world”. With Dr. Grossman, I studied the physiological effects of gastrointestinal hormones, which at that time were just being purified and synthesized. He was also a wonderful mentor, and he arranged for me to work in a biochemistry lab one day a week to pursue and subsequently prove my idea that gastrin was a trophic hormone for the gastric mucosa.

Dr. Grossman introduced me to Dr. Eugene Jacobson, chairman of physiology at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, who was also an important mentor. I chose to accept a position as assistant professor at Oklahoma for several reasons: I admired Dr. Jacobson, who was a superb chairman; I was to be completely independent; and I would be the primary GI physiologist in the institution. I was awarded my first NIH RO1 grant on the regulation of GI mucosal growth, and was promoted to Associate Professor two years later. When Dr. Jacobson left to chair the Physiology Department at the new University of Texas Medical School in Houston, I accepted his offer to move with him in 1972 as a full professor and an offer to help him build the Department. The medical school at Houston was exciting, well funded and led by a brilliant and innovative dean, Dr. Cheves  McCord Smythe.  The school flourished; the Department did extremely well; and thanks to solid funding from the NIH and many bright and hard working fellows, my own research progressed rapidly. During the 17 years at Houston I became heavily involved with APS publications as a journal editor and a member of the publications committee.

In 1989 I accepted the chairmanship of the Department of Physiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. The Department had a nucleus of funded faculty, good space, and I had the resources to hire a lot of productive young faculty and provide them support. Within 10 years we became one of the top five funded departments of physiology. During this time I spent six years as chairman of the publications committee of the APS. After 15 years I resigned the department chairmanship with the idea of returning to research full time, but was convinced by the new Chancellor, Dr. William Owen, to assume the position of Vice Chancellor of Research, which I held for six years. I continued with my own research and teaching to medical students until I retired at the end of 2015 as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus.

I am fortunate to have a partner who enjoys most of the activities that I do.  My wife, Dianna, and I spend considerable time in the outdoors bird watching, hunting, fishing, canoeing and hiking. Our home in rural Tennessee and summer cabin in northern Maine are great environments for these activities, which we often share with our three children and their families.