Skip Navigation Bar
Emery A. Johnson Papers 1938-2007
search terms in context | full text File Size: 388 K bytes | Add this to my bookbag



Biographical Note

Born on April 16, 1929 at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Emery Allen Johnson was adopted as an infant by Emery and Florence Johnson and spent his childhood in Warren, Minnesota. He studied biology at Hamline University in St. Paul, funding his education by working an outside job as well as in a laboratory position created specifically for him by the college. Johnson earned his B.S. in 1951 and moved on to the University of Minnesota Medical School to earn his M.D. In 1954, he graduated second in his class, received his first medical license from the Minnesota State Board of Examiners, interned at the Asbury Methodist Hospital in Minneapolis, and married Nancy Mourning.

The early years of Johnson's public health career were spent moving around the country with an ever-growing family. Johnson joined the United States Public Health Service (PHS) in 1955 at a time when American Indian Health services were being transferred from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He began his career as the Medical Officer assigned to a poorly-supplied ten-bed Indian hospital in the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in Minnesota. What started as a two-year military obligation to the Division of Indian Health ultimately became a twenty-six year PHS career entirely devoted to serving Native American and Alaska Native health care needs. Johnson next served as Medical Officer in Charge of the Indian hospital in Winnebago, Nebraska from 1957-1959. This was followed by two positions in Phoenix, Arizona: Assistant Area Medical Officer in Charge at the Indian Health Area Office from 1959-1961, and Medical Officer in Charge at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center from 1961-1963. Then Johnson took a break to attend the University of California at Berkeley and earn a Master of Public Health degree. Upon completing his Masters in 1964, he became Indian Health Area Director at the PHS Indian Health Area Office in Billings, Montana, for two years. During his time in Montana, he supported the creation of a community health aide program for the Northern Cheyenne tribe and was adopted into the Crow tribe with the name "Walks with the Eagle." One final move took place in June 1966 when Johnson was transferred to Silver Spring, Maryland as Chief of the Office of Program Services and Assistant Director of the Division of Indian Health. Director Erwin S. Rabeau promoted him to Deputy Director in 1967.

In 1969, Emery Johnson succeeded Rabeau as the fourth Director of the newly renamed Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) and Assistant Surgeon General (Rear Admiral) of the United States. His twelve-year tenure ushered in significant improvements to American Indian health care services, programs, facilities, and legislation. Under his directorship, the I.H.S. dramatically increased construction of modern hospital and clinical centers, performed major renovations of antiquated medical facilities, and placed tribal health advisory boards at many service units and area offices. Growing numbers of qualified Indian field medics, medical practitioners, and administrators began sharing health care responsibilities with the I.H.S. as a result of Johnson's efforts. He also encouraged the establishment of national health boards to allow I.H.S. policies to be discussed by tribal representatives before implementation. The resulting National Indian Health Board and American Indian Health Care Association were the first national Indian-controlled organizations evaluating their own health care delivery system.

Johnson also contributed substantially to the development, writing, and passage of several important public laws impacting the Native American population, most notably the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976. He drafted President Richard Nixon's original policy statement regarding self-determination in the early 1970s and convinced the tribes to support this move towards tribal management of their health system. When Johnson retired from the PHS in 1981, he passed the directorship to Everett A. Rhoades, the first Native American to hold the position.

Throughout his retirement, Johnson maintained communication with Rhoades and the I.H.S. as an advisor, coming to his successor's defense when he was suspended pending an investigation into alleged irregularities in the I.H.S. scholarship program. Johnson served as a consultant to numerous Native American tribes and organizations and worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to continue his efforts at improving American Indian health care. He also served on the planning committee for the 1986 Health Program Management Cost Workshop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a program that served as a model for future tribal consultation conferences. Congress repeatedly called upon Johnson to testify on behalf of the Native Americans or the I.H.S., particularly during the lengthy process of reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in the 1980s. By maintaining his federal contacts and relationships with tribal health organizations, Johnson continued to be in a position to lobby for funding and legislation that would benefit the Native American people.

On June 26, 2005, Emery Johnson died of cancer in his home at age 78.