Dr. Johnson, Medicine

Dr. Bernett L. Johnson, Jr., known universally throughout Penn Medicine as “Bernie,” died April 3, 2009, of duodenal cancer, at the age of 76.

One of the most respected and beloved physician-educators and administrators at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the School of Medicine, he received HUP’s first Edward S. Cooper Humanitarian Award in 2005. On that occasion, Garry Scheib, executive director of HUP and chief operating officer of UPHS, said, “Bernie represents the heart and soul of HUP. It’s a privilege to work with him every day.” Colleagues said Dr. Johnson will be most remembered for his easy-going social nature and love of people, his enthusiasm for medicine and the care he took in the treatment of patients, and his dedication to the ideals of community service and social justice.

Dr. Johnson, the son of Bernett L. Johnson, Sr. and Marie F. Howlett, grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He graduated from Armstrong High School in 1949 where he showed a particular interest in and talent for the sciences. After winning a scholarship in a local science fair, he attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, graduating with a BS in biology in 1953. Dr. Johnson pursued his interest in science and medicine by continuing on to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, where he graduated with his medical degree in 1957.

In 1958, Dr. Johnson was commissioned in the US Navy Medical Corps. His postgraduate medical training included: internship at Hurley Hospital, Flint, Michigan, 1957-1958; residency in dermatology at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia, 1961-1964; postgraduate student in dermatology, Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, 1962-1963; and Dermal Histopathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC, 1964-1965. Dr. Johnson was board-certified by the American Board of Dermatology in October 1965.

After retiring from the Navy, he came to Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital in 1980 as associate chair of dermatology and became a clinical professor at Penn. In 1984, he joined the standing faculty as associate professor of dermatology. From 1993 to 1995, he served as interim chair of the department.

Dr. Johnson, a professor of dermatology, was senior medical officer for HUP and senior associate dean for diversity and community outreach. In the latter position, he was instrumental in the collaboration between Penn and the Sayre Middle School. The opening of the Sayre Health Center in September 2007 (Almanac September 11, 2007) was the culmination of Dr. Johnson’s vision of community involvement. Previously, he had also served as senior associate dean for veterans’ affairs. Among his honors, Dr. Johnson was named Practitioner of the Year by the National Medical Association in 1993 and was frequently named one of Philadelphia Magazine’s “Top Doctors.”

Throughout the years, Dr. Johnson had been involved in many organizations, including the American College of Physicians, the Philadelphia College of Physicians, Fellowship in the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Medical Association, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Dermatology. He served on the National Board of Medical Examiners and was one of the editors of an edition of a classic textbook in his field, Lever’s Histopathology of the Skin.

Dr. Johnson’s dedication and service to medicine has been noted throughout his career. He was also recognized as an outstanding teacher, winning the University’s Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1997. More recent honors included the Services to the Sciences Award from the NAACP (2006); Walter R. Nickel Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Dermatopathology (2007); the Physicians Recognition Award from the American Medical Association (2005-2008); as well as Continuing Medical Education Award from the American Academy of Dermatology (2008).

The dermatology residents recently announced the naming of the “Dr. Bernett Johnson Award for Teaching” to be given to the faculty person that the residents feel has contributed the most to their education in a caring and professional manner. The award will be given on May 13 at the annual Pillsbury Dinner.

Dr. Johnson, who began painting in 1968, was also well known for his oil painting, and several of his portraits of faculty members can be found on campus. Throughout the years, his work has been shown on campus at the Faculty Club’s Burrison Gallery (now the University Club at Penn) and the annual Gracie Mansion Art Exhibit in New York City. He won first prize at an art show sponsored by the American Medical Association and a “Best of Show” at an American Academy of Dermatology art exhibition.

Dr. Johnson is survived by his wife, Mary-Martha; sons, Brian, Keith, and Logan; daughter, Susanne; grandchildren, Bradley, Danielle, DeNae, and Cory; and four great-grandchildren, Isaac, Audrey, Maclain and Elliot.

Viewings: Thursday, April 16 and Friday, April 17, 5-9 p.m., John F. Givnish Funeral Home, 10975 Academy Road, Philadelphia, PA 19154, (215) 281-0100. Saturday, April 18, Normandy Farms, 8-9 a.m., 1401 Morris Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422.

Funeral Service: Saturday, April 18, Normandy Farms, 9:30-11:30 a.m., 1401 Morris Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422, (215) 616-8500.

Memorial donations may be made to the Meharry Medical College, Development Office, 1005 Dr. D.B. Todd, Jr., Boulevard, Nashville, TN 37208, or to the Bernett L. Johnson, Jr. Sayre Health Center Memorial Fund, payable to Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, 3535 Market St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.