JOHNSON, RICHARD, Methodist minister, doctor, jp, and office holder; b. 10 Nov. 1830 in Louth, England, son of Henry Allen Johnson and Anne Hammond; m. Alice Jane Sterling* of Windsor, N.S., and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 18 March 1903 in Charlottetown.
In 1850 Richard Johnson accompanied his family from England to Charlottetown, where he continued his medical training under his father and elder brother, Hammond, who were both physicians. His father had been a mayor of Louth and later became a member of Prince Edward Island’s Legislative Council. During the early 1850s Richard studied at Harvard Medical School. He was returning home across the Northumberland Strait in March 1855 when a powerful snowstorm blew the ice-boat off course; the passengers and crew were without food or warmth for three days before they were rescued. The storm, which left Johnson so badly frozen he never fully recovered, precipitated his decision to leave medicine for the ministry. He became an ordained Methodist minister in 1861 and served communities in Nova Scotia and the Island until 1864, when a recurrent throat infection forced him to leave the ministry. He returned to Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1865.
Johnson went into private practice in Charlottetown, and like many other physicians of the period, dispensed drugs. His two sons would help in the business and later establish their own pharmacy. As Johnson became better known, he was appointed superintendent of vaccination, justice of the peace for Queens County, trustee and chairman of the Board of School Trustees of Charlottetown, and registrar of the Prince Edward Island Medical Council, a post he held from 1890 to his death. He was one of the founding members of the Prince Edward Island Hospital in 1884, and senior member of its medical staff. It is his actions as health officer of Charlottetown from 1885 to 1903, however, that merit attention.
In 1885 Johnson mobilized the city council, other physicians, and a citizens’ committee to confine the spread of Charlottetown’s worst smallpox epidemic. Although provincial legislation made vaccination compulsory in 1886, only Charlottetown enforced the statutes. Johnson used his positions as school-board chairman and health officer to persuade the authorities in 1891 to enforce compulsory school vaccinations. Throughout his tenure as health officer, he sought to educate both politicians and the general public about the need for sanitary reforms and preventive health policies. His major successes included the construction of a sewerage system in 1900 (although he personally favoured the treatment of waste water at sewage farms over the city’s decision to dump untreated effluent into the harbour), the appointment of a sanitary officer in 1888, regulations and inspections of abattoirs and tanneries, the prohibition of pigsties within city limits, and the adoption of antitoxin for diphtheria. He fought unsuccessfully for a hospital for infectious diseases, compulsory notification of diseases, and the collection of mortuary statistics.
Johnson was a transitional figure between the miasmatic (foul-air) theory of disease, which held sway at mid century, and the discovery of micro-organisms late in the century. He gathered information from British, American, and Canadian medical journals and assimilated the latest discoveries with apparent ease, but with a poor conception of the contradictions between old and new ideas. In one typical report to city council, he described the important role meteorological conditions played in propagating “infective microbes” within “hotbeds of miasmas.” His report in 1885, which included weather charts for previous years, purported to illustrate that cool, wet summers resulted in lower rates of mortality. Nevertheless, his use of statistics and his tireless efforts on behalf of sanitary reforms awakened people to the need for preventive health care and led to a safer, cleaner city.
PARO, RG 20, 9–12; 38, 1888–99; 577, 1898–1903; 719. Daily Examiner (Charlottetown), 5 Sept., 11, 19, 30 Dec. 1885; 15 Dec. 1891; 10 Oct. 1892; 18 March 1903. Daily Patriot (Charlottetown), 15, 19 Dec. 1885; 11 April 1888; 18 March 1903. D. O. Baldwin, “The campaign against odors: sanitarians and the genesis of public health in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (1855–1900),” Scientia Canadensis (Thornhill, Ont., and Ottawa), 10 (1986): 72–82. Gaslights, epidemics and vagabond cows: Charlottetown in the Victorian era, ed. D. [O.] Baldwin and Thomas Spira (Charlottetown, 1988). Charlottetown, Annual report, reports of the Board of School Trustees, 1878–80, the commissioners of water and sewers, 1900, and the health officer, 1885–1903; 1892, app.F (G. E. Waring, “Report of the sewerage of the city of Charlottetown” (copies at PARO)). R. G. Lea, History of the practice of medicine in Prince Edward Island ([Charlottetown, 1964]). Past and present of P.E.I. (MacKinnon and Warburton), 686–87.