By any measure, Paul Johnson was tough in the best sense of the word.
“He was friendly, never forgot a face, and humble,” says Warwick Bayly, professor and former dean of the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “A courageous man with amazing self-discipline.” Johnson passed away peacefully at his home on November 14, 2020.
As instructional supervisor in the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology, Johnson spent 36 years overseeing the Worthman Anatomy Teaching Museum while also creating display specimens. From 1974 until 2010, he helped incoming veterinary students navigate the rigors of anatomy class. His skills and knowledge also extended to colleagues in animal science, anthropology, and other departments.
“Paul had just returned from Vietnam where he was a Marine gunnery sergeant and he applied to work with Dr. Worthman,” says Bayly. “There were other better-qualified candidates but Dr. Worthman said, ‘I like the cut of your jib’ and gave Paul the job.”
Johnson quickly learned the ropes and went on to develop many innovative techniques for preserving and displaying anatomy specimens. He also set up a summer anatomy lab work crew staffed with veterinary students. They began calling Johnson “PJ” and the name stuck.
“PJ really took those of us working in the lab under his wing,” says Randy Ridenour (’81 DVM). “He was very concerned that we all got through vet school successfully. He took his responsibility very seriously as he wanted the lab to be the best source of helpful information possible. The lab was more than just a job for him.”
Former WSU equine surgeon Barrie Grant (’67 DVM, ’72 MS Vet. Med.) says Johnson was also very helpful in providing specimens for faculty research.
“It sure made a difference with all the equine neck problems I worked on,” Grant says. “And, later, for developing a technique to put artificial hip joints in horses.
“Paul also learned how to do cryopreservation and made great freeze-dried specimens so we could clearly see and identify things like the lungs and heart.
“At that time, WSU was one of the first to really get going with diagnostic ultrasound,” he says. “Paul helped create a cross-sectional display set in plexiglass where the sections could be pulled out for inspection. By examining these sections, we could better measure and analyze ultrasound images.”
Professor and College of Veterinary Medicine dean emeritus Bryan Slinker (’80 DVM, ’82 PhD Vet. Med.) says, “PJ learned and adapted as times changed and his innovations helped students learn in ways previously unavailable. His contributions were as important as those of the faculty to the education of many generations of veterinarians.”
Johnson’s work is also prominently displayed in the Middle East. In 1997, Johnson prepared a horse skeleton and helped install it at the Dubai Equine Hospital for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. In 2014, Johnson came out of retirement to help prepare a camel skeleton for the Emir of Qatar.
Beyond the anatomy lab, Johnson was a natural athlete who often invited students to run the stadium stairs at noon. He helped organize the WSU 100K run and was cited as the fastest runner on his WSU Corporate Cup team in Spokane’s Bloomsday Run.
“We must’ve run 15,000 miles together,” says Grant who teamed up with Johnson to win some of the toughest races in North America. “We did a lot of ride ’n’ ties and also competed in the Western States 100 ultramarathon.” A ride ’n’ tie is a team endurance race that combines running and horseback riding.
“He was a gift to me,” Grant says. “Running a hard race and then having a cold beer with somebody like Paul. Just the simple pleasures of life. If you hadn’t done it together, you wouldn’t appreciate how good it really was.”