Johnson, Adrian Mackey

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Adrian Mackey Johnson CBE


Adrian Johnson established the Combined Skin Cancer Clinic at Royal Prince Alfred and, as a qualified radiotherapist, was integral to the development of collaboration between dermatologists, radiotherapists and surgeons in the treatment of skin cancer within the Hospital. He was Founding Editor of the Australasian Journal of Dermatology.

Adrian graduated from Medicine with honours in 1939 and was Resident Medical Officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital when war was declared in 1939. He immediately volunteered to join the AIF and became the Regimental Medical Officer of the 2nd/5th Field Regiment. For next two years, he was deployed to India, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. In his autobiography piece written in 1982, he says that although these were the years he should have been in basic training, they were “the most fulfilling period of my life, being the advisor and confidant of some 800 volunteers in a fighting unit in action”. However, during his time there, he developed an amoebic hepatitis and spent the next 12 months “in and out of a military hospital” before being well enough to decide to study dermatology “as occupational therapy”. He was re-enlisted, this time as Dermatologist in the RAAF, remaining Consultant Dermatologist even after the war had ended. He says:

On demobilization, I continued in dermatology, and I have never regretted the decision to enter a speciality in which interest spans from oncology at one end of the spectrum to psychosomatic dermatitis at the other.[1]

There were no formal residency courses so he proceeded to attend every clinic that he could in Sydney, and examined every dermatologic slide in the Pathology Department at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Here I came under the influence E H Molesworth… who had first put dermatology on its feet, and, being a pioneer in the radiotherapy of all cancer, had gained the respect of his colleagues from which the status of dermatology also benefited.[1] Adrian was encouraged to study radiotherapy and his decision to do so paved the way for his later collaboration with radiotherapists, and the eventual establishment of the Combined Skin Cancer Clinic at RPA.

In 1945 John Belisario was demobilised and appointed to the Sub-department of Dermatology at the University of Sydney. His organisation of the Diploma Course in Dermatological Medicine meant that Adrian was able to gain a qualification for what he had been doing on a virtual ‘do-it-yourself basis’.

Adrian was a Foundation Member of the Dermatological Association of Australia in 1951. John Belisario was the Foundation President and Adrian was asked to be the Foundation Editor of their publication, the Australasian Journal of Dermatology, a role he carried out for 25 years. In 1952, he attended the Tenth International Congress of Dermatology in London as Australian Secretary, an opportunity which enabled him to acquaint himself with respected dermatologists from around the world, many of whom he met again in Europe or the United States during the rest of the year. In 1954 he became President of the New South Wales branch of the British Association of Dermatologists, and President of the Dermatological Association of Australia in 1965. He was also an Honorary Member of the Dermatology Section, of the Royal Society of Medicine in London and an International Honorary Member of the American Dermatological Association and the Association of Military Surgeons USA.

Of his work, he says that he developed expertise in the management of cutaneous malignancy “mainly because of the volume of work seen”. On the basis of his experience in this area, he prepared an international paper entitled Treatment of basal cell carcinoma – my last 100 failures, because he believed that “more can be learned from the reasons for failure than the recital of success”.

He became Honorary Physician in the Department of Dermatology at Royal Prince Alfred in and later became the Head of Department. In this capacity, he established the Combined Skin Cancer Clinic which treated the ‘problem cases’. Patients coming to the centre were given personal consultations by a surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a radiotherapist and a dermatologist. He describes his belief in this style of treatment in the following way:

Seen before treatment commenced, the optimum for each patient was mutually agreed on in advance. It has been my belief that, to the mutual benefit of all concerned (patients, colleagues and dermatologists), it is much better to keep dermatology within the mainstream of medicine, as is the case with the Belisario Institute of Dermatology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, rather than have a dermatology institute divorced from a general hospital.[1]

In addition to his role in the Department of Dermatology, he also lectured in Tropical Dermatology at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. In his autobiography piece, he says that clinical dermatology held his interest all his life. He acknowledges that this interest has been fostered by his appointment as Consultant Dermatologist to the RAAF which has enabled him to travel widely to such places as New Guinea and Vietnam, and to experience parts of these countries beyond the tourist realm.

Outside of his teaching and consultancy, he was Director of the Medical Benefits Fund of Australia for 27 years and is Vice-Chairman of the Medical Defense Union of New South Wales.

In 1968, Adrian was awarded the Order of the British Empire–Commander (Civil) for his services to Medicine and the community.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Johnson, Adrian Mackey. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.