Citation Laureate 2021 spotlight: Karl M. Johnson

“Be unafraid to say no to something which is going to give you a near-term promotion and keep looking for the opportunity of a lifetime”

Citation Laureate 2021 and award-winning scientist Karl M. Johnson shares advice for budding researchers

What does it take to be a researcher of Nobel class? Citation Laureate for 2021 Karl M. Johnson shares his story about finding his calling and offers advice for researchers who are new to the scene.

Every year Clarivate recognizes a handful of world-class researchers as Citation Laureates™. This tribute celebrates the scientific and research elite whose contributions to science have been transformative, even revolutionary, as attested by their exceptionally high citation record within the Web of Science™.

In this interview, Dr. Karl M. Johnson, one of our Citation Laureates for 2021 in Physiology or Medicine, shares his life experience and advice. His recognition as a Citation Laureate is based on the identification and isolation of the Hantaan virus (hantavirus), agent of hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in research

I graduated in 1951 from Oberlin College in Ohio and went on to study medicine at the University of Rochester in New York. There I fell under the guidance of Dr. Herbert Morgan, who himself had been a student with John Enders, Nobel Laureate from Harvard, who is the man who first grew polio virus in cell culture. That was a resounding event for which he won the Nobel Prize, and Herbert Morgan was a student at Harvard at the time. He was a marvelous teacher and I even took a year out of medical school to get a master’s degree in microbiology at the university. Then I went on to be an intern and assistant resident at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. I think I was the first Rochester graduate to ever get the chance to do that.

Afterwards I joined NIH because of my master’s degree. At the time that was regarded as something way more significant than it is today. I worked in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Channick at NIH for four years, mainly on mild respiratory viruses, after which I decided I really needed to see something more serious. I took a job, against all advice, joining the NIH field station in the Panama Canal zone.

There I worked on a hemorrhagic fever disease in Bolivia. I was very fortunate that our own experience with Cuba at the time was less than satisfactory, after which they moved the headquarters for the Southern command of the military from Puerto Rico, where it had been established at the time they finished the canal, to the Panama Canal zone, about 400 meters from our laboratory.

I had extraordinary help from the U.S. military and the embassy and La Paz, Bolivia throughout our studies there, where we set up a laboratory in a modified staff house in the town of San Joaquin, where the epidemic was ongoing. We isolated the virus right there. We found out that a certain rodent was the vector of the disease and controlled everything by doing a scientific study on rodent control in the town.

After that the director of the laboratory had a sudden heart attack and died and I inherited that job. I was doing that until NIH closed the laboratory several years later. My wife and I, who was also a scientist, were swallowing and hallowing in a Sargasso Sea of not knowing what was next for us, when finally the director of CDC called me and wanted both of us to come to CDC and start a thing known as special passages, which we did.

About six or eight months later, we had the adventure of a lifetime when we went to Zaire to recover the virus of Ebola, which I named. I named it for a little river in the general area of where the virus was first found instead of for the town in which it occurred because of the previous experience of several people from Rockefeller Foundation who had named the Lassa virus for the town in Nigeria, in which it was first discovered. I decided that we didn’t want to have a repeat of that, and the events of recent years have certainly borne it out, that it was a much better decision to name it Ebola than it would have been to name it for the town where we first got it.

How does it feel to be a Citation Laureate?  

It’s nice to have such recognition while I’m still alive! It means that I’m happy to have reached the age of 92. I had no idea, whenever I made the decisions I made to take me from place to place, that I would be doing science there. Certainly, I didn’t have any idea in college that I was going to be anything other than a practicing internal medicine person. I just followed my instincts!

What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

I remember giving myself the advice of what I no longer wished to do, and I think that was the driving thing. I didn’t want to spend my career working on the common cold.

What qualities do you need to become a successful researcher?

I think you have to have an instinct for the main game. When I took the job in Panama, we did know that the disease in Bolivia existed, and we had no idea how much help we were going to get. I had my own airplane from the military making trips every two weeks to make sure that we constantly had liquid nitrogen and dry ice supply, which were unavailable in the country at the time, wherever we went. I would advise people to be unafraid to say no to something which was going to give them a near-term promotion and to keep looking for the opportunity of a lifetime.