Philip C. Johnson, MD (on left) 15th President of the Chapter; pictured here with colleague Adrian LeBlanc, PhD

Philip C. Johnson, MD (on left)
15th President of the Chapter; pictured here with colleague Adrian LeBlanc, PhD

March 4, 2005

MR. METZGER: This is Charlie Metzger interviewing Adrian Leblanc to learn more about Philip Johnson. First of all, I am wondering about your historical relationship with Dr. Johnson—did you work with him, train under him?

DR. LEBLANC: Yes, I worked with him for many years, starting in 1966. He hired me out of graduate school down there at Methodist Hospital in Houston, and I worked for him pretty closely up until his death.

MR. METZGER: What was his main focus? From what I’ve been able to discover thus far, it seems like he was focused on space-oriented applications. 

DR. LEBLANC: Dr. Johnson established nuclear medicine at Methodist Hospital back in the early '60s, and really built that up to a thriving business. You know, it started like a lot of nuclear medicine began with others like Herbert Allen and Tom Haynie. They were pioneers, and Phil Johnson was an endocrinologist. He was board certified in internal medicine, with a specialty in thyroid diseases, so that was the connection to nuclear medicine. He started doing thyroid scans and thyroid uptake with I-131 and gradually built up as the profession as more scans became possible, like scanning renal function with probes.

Liver scans came along next, and then lung scans and bone scans. The bone scans, of course, changed things very dramatically, and then in later years, he introduced nuclear cardiology. He set up a very large radioimmunoassay lab, which was part of nuclear medicine at one time, so he was kind of one of the pioneers really in the field in my opinion.

Dr. Johnson was very heavily involved in nuclear medicine and was heavily involved in training physicians particularly in thyroid disorders and, in fact, he was recognized in the southwest area as the thyroid guru basically. He was the go-to guy and trained a number of people in the thyroid disorders. 

There was one interesting story of—I think his name is Stanley Zimmerman. I don't know if he still practices, but he trained under Dr. Johnson. Now, business is always fairly competitive, and when you train somebody, you don't want them to come pilfer your business, so to speak. Stanley gave a talk one time at Dr. Johnson’s invitation. He said, “You know, this business is funny. You know how the lions out in the wild mark their territory so this tells everyone, this is where I live and work and don't come near?” And he continued, “Well, I want you to know that Phil Johnson has urinated all around the Texas Medical Center.” 

It was very funny. Phil got a kick out of that, but it's sort of a way of in a metaphor describing the territorial aspects of the business aspects of medicine.

I think the other thing that Dr. Johnson was very proud of his work with the State Health Department, the advisory board. He was a member of the medical advisory board for many, many years and helped formulate the new rules and regulations that needed to be developed as the profession got larger and more complex and more robust. He was very proud of that. He established the training program for the inspectors. So they'd come in, and they'd have some idea what they were regulating.

He set that up and did that for many years, and he also did the same thing with the American College of Pathology. When they began regulating the RIA procedures they needed a way to certify physicians as being capable and he set up that class up in, I think, it was Chicago. 

Once a year we'd go up there, and he'd do this training of maybe 40 physicians from all over the country, and that was a lot of fun but it was also very useful. He designed that course, the syllabus, and the material in it, and so forth, and we helped, of course, but he was the leader on that. 

And I guess his other major love, you could put it, was his work with NASA. Dr. Johnson was involved very early on the Gemini and another early vehicle. I got involved at the end of the Gemini program, but he'd been involved for many, many years and was the person that discovered the loss of red blood cells and plasma volume in space. This actually occurred, and still is not understood but verified many times that this indeed occurs, and, of course, if you come back from space and you have your plasma and your red cell mass low and so forth, that means your stamina is going to be lessened, and so that's not a great concern but certainly is one that people keep their eye on, and he's the one that discovered that. 

I'll tell you one story. We went down to Cape Kennedy to do some testing. You know, we'd do the preflight testing before the mission down at Cape Kennedy, and this is the old days of Apollo. He had a badge. You know, he wasn't afraid to do anything. So even though he was a visitor, he had a NASA personnel badge on, and Theda and I just had visitor's badges. So we walked into the OMB building, which is where they assemble the rocket and they were actually putting one together for an Apollo flight. The rocket was up on that crawler, which is like a couple stories tall itself.

The crawler moved the rocket around so they would put the rocket together on top of this thing, and we just walked in there. There's people walking around with crowbars and boots, all kinds of things, and no one paid any attention, so we didn't even have hard hats on, and then he says, “Let's go up.” So we get to this elevator, and it's all open, like one you would use in a mine or construction site. We took this thing all the way up to the top. It was incredible! They had the capsule ready to put it on the rocket. We're up now 12, 13 stories in the air, looking at this enormous rocket.

MR. METZGER: And no door on the elevator? 

DR. LEBLANC: No door. There was just a piece of wood that kept us on. We got off of the elevator and walked around up there. It was scaffolding, and looking at that rocket made you wonder, “Well, how could that ever get off the ground?” I mean, it's just as big as a building. So that was a very amazing thing. No one ever stopped us, and now you can't get within five miles of that building because of the rocket fuel and all that kind of stuff.

Another story that was kind of interesting is that we would go out on the ship for the recovery. Pre-flight and then the post-flight evaluation was done on the aircraft carrier that picked them up at sea, which was where the capsule would land.

So we'd be on the ship, but we'd have to get out there early, and so there wasn't a whole lot of stuff to do, and most of them played bridge, and he was the best bridge player in the entire Navy. They called him "Two-trump Phil" or something like that because he could win at that, but they just did that all the time, and that was kind of funny.

He's one of the smartest people I ever knew, but he not only knew medicine. He knew physics and, as opposed to some, he really was good at numbers and mathematics and so forth. He was a very hardworking guy. I mean, work was his life, and he had a varied interests, including physics and nuclear physics. He was also an astute businessman, so he was a Renaissance man in a way. I mean, he knew medicine. He was the person that NASA trusted. If they had a medical question, not just nuclear medicine, they came to Dr. Johnson. He was well respected by the NASA scientific community.