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Nerds of Mizzou

Drop the CliffsNotes. Lenworth Johnson expects details.

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Feb. 23, 2009
Lenworth Johnson

Internationally renowned MU neuro-ophthalmologist Lenworth Johnson is known for his love of gadgets. Here he's wearing a binocular indirect ophthalmoscope and holding a 20-diopter condensing lens.

During 28 years as a doctor, Professor Lenworth Johnson, M.D., has risen to the top of his field in neuro-ophthalmology, where he is sought nationally and internationally as an expert.

Ever the perfectionist, Johnson is irritated at himself when he can’t place faces with the names of his patients. Such a task would be monumental because he has treated more than 20,000 people. Nonetheless, he has strapped a camera to his belt. 

Meet this overachiever who, since 1990, has been teaching and practicing neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Missouri’s Mason Eye Clinic.

Some see genius

There are no simple answers to questions directed to Johnson.  All queries receive detailed explanations. Still, no colleagues, students or staff members are going to roll their eyes when Johnson speaks — even at great length. He has earned their respect.     

But sometimes you just have to smile at Johnson’s thought process, like when he wonders aloud whether an eye movement takes 200 or 300 milliseconds. Or discusses for 20 minutes whether it’s more efficient to take the stairs one or two steps at a time. Or quotes Shakespeare while talking about the optic nerve.

“Genius,” quoth son Drew, adding, “but his jokes are awful.”

As most physicians are, Johnson is extremely bright. “What sets him apart is that he has an almost voracious intellectual curiosity, which is the foundation for his ecumenical knowledge,” says Nathan Hesemann, a resident physician under Johnson’s mentorship.

It was Johnson’s teachers who taught him to solve problems by thinking and applying everyday knowledge. He now spreads that skill to his students — and any other takers. Just pick a subject.

Or pick an occasion. Johnson sees teachable moments everywhere, including a carpool. “In high school, my friend would dread the days when Dad drove us to school because she knew he was going to lecture us and ask questions,” daughter Meredith says.

One of America’s best docs

Johnson’s peers named him one of the 2008 Best Doctors in America. It’s an honor he has received multiple times since the 1990s. Physicians widely recognize him as a comprehensive thinker and leader in neuro-ophthalmology.

He also is honored as a charter member of the National Institutes of Health’s Council of Councils, a congressionally mandated advisory group on research priorities and scientific opportunities.

“Probably the biggest testimony to his ability as a doctor is that patients are referred from all over the country — and sometimes outside the country — to see him,” Hesemann says. His international patients have traveled from Africa, England, Germany and Guam.

Clearly, the vision specialty fascinates Johnson, who has written 97 peer-reviewed publications. “It’s the best field,” he says. His diagnoses employ a combination of advanced technology, simple tools and knowledge. “The way to understand the brain is to look at the optic nerve in the back of the eyes.”

Johnson’s knowledge, coupled with his desire to improve patients’ lives, led to research on treating a common cause of loss of vision. The disease — nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION) — often affects people older than 50.

While treating patients for lazy eye, Johnson noted that those who took a specific drug for Parkinson’s disease experienced vision changes. After a clinical study, he was first to show that the use of Sinemet (Levodopa) could improve vision lost to NAION. The results were published in the late 1990s.

Pocket protectors? Check!

Lenworth Johnson

Johnson, the father of four MU honors students, encourages young people in minority groups to pursue careers in medicine. He and his wife, Patti Johnson, have established the Scholarship Award in Vision and Medicine. 

There are geeks galore in the Johnson family. Len and wife Patti have proudly reared their younger generation of intellectuals. “We’re all nerds,” says older son Lenworth “Jay,” a first-year law student. All four Johnson kids attend Mizzou on a variety of scholarships, including National Merit, Bright Flight and Brooks.

Gabriella, the oldest, is a graduate student in psychological sciences with a research interest in the startle reflex and evolutionary psychology of the post-auricular reflex. Drew is a senior majoring in sociology, studying music and planning to enter the Peace Corps. Meredith, a junior majoring in chemistry, aspires to become a physician.   

All attended the invitation-only Missouri Scholars Academy, graduated with honors from high school and accumulated scholarships and entrance acceptances from numerous prestigious universities. Jay says his dad loved the whole college-preparation process and would rouse him at the crack of dawn to study together for entrance exams. “Dad loves to share information. He’s a bank of knowledge,” Jay says.

Only one area of expertise — sartorial sense — eludes the doctor of the house. If Patti doesn’t intervene, he dresses like a nerd, Gabriella says. As evidence, she cites the pocket protector, glasses and Cosby sweaters he wears, along with the ultimate faux pas — socks with sandals.

“I like Bill Cosby,” Johnson says of the sweaters.

What the younger Johnsons forget to mention is their dad’s penchant for technology. While attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., he carried one of the first programmable calculators on one hip and — in case the batteries died — a slide rule on the other.

It was cutting edge at the time.

Making eye contact

As a medical student who wanted to learn everything about optic nerves, Johnson gathered some information in a rather unusual manner. He would carry a hand-held instrument (a direct ophthalmoscope), walk around the hospital and ask patients, staff members and visitors if he could look at their eyes. Most people complied.

Johnson attributes his compulsive search for knowledge to his parents, who value higher education; his mother, now in her 80s, is studying Chinese.

The family moved from Jamaica to the United States in 1966 when “Lenny” was 9. In sixth grade, he already knew he wanted to study the brain. 

Goals in sight

Other than race-walking — a sport that requires athletes to use a gait reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s — Johnson has little time for normal recreational activities. He relaxes with mathematical calculations, reading, conversation and writing music. 

He has three books in progress: a novel, a collection of short stories and a simplified theory of life — if you believe anything Johnson does can be simple.

He is co-author of a recently published book, Breaking the Color Line in Medicine: African Americans in Ophthalmology, which honors African-American pioneers in the profession.

Johnson estimates that only 300 of the nation’s 18,000 ophthalmologists are African-American and hopes the book will inspire economically disadvantaged and minority students to pursue careers in visual sciences and medicine.

Looking toward the future, he and Patti created the Scholarship Award in Vision and Medicine, open to graduating high school students nationally.

Read more in:  Special Features & SeriesHealth & MedicineScience & TechnologyFamily & CommunityOn Campus

Reader feedback

  • Reading your article about Dr. Lenworth Johnson and his family was far  more than relaxation or entertainment; it was a source of pride and inspiration. To know that Mizzou has recruited and retained such a talented scientist for so long is a profound statement about its role in helping make the American Dream a reality. Dr. Johnson's earning of  many accolades for his outstanding contributions to the field of neuro-ophthalmology has obviously contributed significantly to the university's reputation as having one of the nation's highly recognized ophthalmology programs. Congratulations to Mizzou Wire for sharing such a wonderful story with the university community.

  • I so enjoyed the article on Dr. Lenwood Johnson. As one of his patients, I agree with son Drew's comment: "Genius." Dr. Johnson has treated me for temporal arteritis since December 2006. It's a disease which has caused me to lose sight in my left eye.

    I have been most impressed with his attention to detail and easy manner with patients, especially me. He makes Office visits enjoyable with his obvious interest in what is going on in my life.

    Congratulations to Nancy Moen on a most interesting article about one of Mizzou's best.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012