Giving in Action: Family First for Distinguished Alum

From the Summer 2017 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

Although Richard B. Johnston Jr., M.D., ‘61, BA’57, is a renowned immunologist and pediatrician, it’s his family that makes him most grateful and proud.

Johnston — who has dedicated his life’s work to improving the health of children — received the Vanderbilt University Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award this spring. The honor is the highest awarded to a member of the University’s alumni community.

In accepting the award, Johnston spoke of his gratitude for being a part of a close-knit medical family and for being a part of Vanderbilt.

“I’ve made two monumental decisions in my life and they are interrelated. The first was to marry Mary Anne, whom I met at Vanderbilt. If I’ve ever done anything to improve the world, it was to partner with Mary Anne in raising our three children, Rich, Clay, and Kristin, of whom I could not be more proud.

“Mary Anne (BA ‘60) launched our three children, then went back to school to get a Ph.D. in the philosophy and psychology of education, eventually becoming Director of Medical Education at Penn, Yale, and the University of Colorado. Rich, BA’85, MD’89, practices orthopaedics-sports medicine in Atlanta. He covers the SEC football championship and has repeatedly been voted top sports medicine orthopedist in Atlanta. Kristin is a sensitive clinical psychologist in Boulder and the best mother in Colorado. Her husband Jason manages clinical research and is my third son. Clay is a neurologist and dean of a new medical school at University of Texas Austin,” Johnston proudly recounted.

Choosing Vanderbilt was the second largest decision in his life, and Johnston says he feels honored with the other gifts his Vanderbilt experience bestowed on him — the privilege to serve on the Medical Center Affairs Committee of the Board of Trust and as a member of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) Board of Directors, to name two.

“I’ve been inspired by the persistent drive for excellence within our University and the two truly exceptional individuals who lead that drive, Chancellor Zeppos and Jeff Balser, dean of the School of Medicine and CEO of VUMC,” Johnston said.

As his career reveals, Johnston knows something of the drive to excel. During his tenure as national medical director of the March of Dimes, he led an effort that significantly reduced birth defects such as spina bifida. His leadership ultimately led to the Food and Drug Administration’s historic 1998 ruling to add folic acid to America’s grain supply, which has since significantly reduced neural tube defects such as spina bifida in the United States.

Johnston has also served as the president of the Society for Pediatric Research, the American Pediatric Society and the International Pediatric Research Foundation. He chaired departments of pediatrics at National Jewish Health, Denver, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has chaired seven committees of the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences. His list of awards includes the John Howland Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Pediatric Society, the Harvey Wiley Medal from the FDA and the David Rall Medal from the National Academy of Medicine, of which he is a member. He also received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 2008.