August 2020

Dr. Charles Johnson

Dr. Charles Johnson

Along the way to becoming the first African-American physician on Duke University’s senior medical faculty, Dr. Charles Johnson developed a reputation for transforming obstacles into opportunities.

Time and again throughout his life, Johnson’s character, determination and vision combined to overcome the social obstacles that stood between him and professional success.

Born on the property of a coal mining company in Alabama, Johnson was determined to pursue education beyond high school. So, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in June 1946. Completing his service commitment, Johnson used his G.I. Bill benefits and enrolled at Howard University, graduating in 1953.

At Howard, Johnson majored in physics in hopes of one day working for a chemical corporation. However, as he neared the end of his program, one of his professors informed him that, at the time, chemical corporations did not hire African-Americans and that the only available career paths were to be a high school teacher or a college professor.

Johnson decided to instead set his sights on a medical career. But first, following graduation, he needed to fulfill a commitment to the Air Force, as he had joined the Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC) as an undergraduate. Johnson became a pilot and flew RF-84F Thunderflash jets for four years. Believing he could be more helpful to the community as a physician, Johnson declined a regular commission in the Air Force to return to Howard University and pursue a degree in medicine.

Johnson graduated from Howard’s medical school in 1963 and was recruited to Lincoln Hospital, an African-American medical facility in Durham, NC. Johnson and a colleague were part of a medical education program linking Howard University and Duke University, with white physicians from Duke helping to train African-American physicians in a particular medical specialty.

In 1967, Johnson completed a one-year fellowship in endocrinology at Duke. During that year, representatives of the National Institute of Health visited Duke to assess the medical center. In an open meeting, they asked if anyone had any concerns and Johnson answered truthfully, that he was not allowed to rotate onto the hospital’s private diagnostic clinic, which was reserved for white patients.

It was a courageous reply given in front of Johnson’s supervisors. NIH could not provide segregated hospitals federal funding for research. Johnson’s comments served as a catalyst to encourage Duke to accelerate the process of becoming a racially inclusive hospital. In time, Johnson and other physicians of color were allowed to see patients in both the public and private diagnostic clinics. Johnson also encouraged Duke to recruit more African-American doctors, nurses, professionals in allied healthcare, and medical students. This step helped bring adequate and up-to-date healthcare to the region’s African-American community and, over time, Duke became more racially diverse.

“Creating access for African-Americans to receive healthcare at Duke without it being an issue was a tremendous improvement,” Johnson said.

Johnson dedicated his medical career to eliminating healthcare disparities. He was deeply concerned with the lack of hospitals in much of eastern North Carolina. Working with the Old North State Medical Society, he lobbied for years for the creation of a medical school at East Carolina University that would enhance healthcare in the region and increase the supply of physicians for the rural and underserved community. That school opened in 1977.

Johnson served as Director of Medical Services at Lincoln from 1968 to 1973 and president of the Old North State Medical Society from 1973-1975. He joined the National Medical Association (NMA) in 1967 and worked within it to address areas for critical need within the African-American community. In 1990, Johnson was installed as the 89th president of the NMA.

On September 1, 1970, he joined the faculty at Duke University Medical Center as an Assistant Professor of Medicine. He was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 1974 and to Professor in 1995. He retired from Duke on Sept. 30,1996.


by Quain Dixon