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C. Conrad Johnston, Jr., MD, a distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, died Jan. 22 at the age of 94.

Remembering Conrad Johnston

Remembering C. Conrad Johnston, Jr., MD

Remembering C. Conrad Johnston, Jr., MD

C. Conrad Johnston, Jr., MD, a distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, died Jan. 22 at the age of 94.

Johnston was a giant in metabolic bone research and pivotal in growing the endocrine and bone mineral groups at the school, recruiting many faculty members to IU who went on to make major contributions to and became leaders in the areas of bone and mineral, diabetes, hypertension, genetics, biostatistics, and biomechanics research. 

Johnston served as chief of IU’s Division of Endocrinology for 25 years. He became an IU Distinguished Professor of Medicine in 1997 and was given a Bicentennial Medal in 2020 for his services to the university.

In 1969, Johnston founded and chaired the first Institutional Review Board (IRB) at IU – a decade before such review boards were required and regulated by the federal government – and he led IU’s IRB for more than four decades, providing important ethical and administrative oversight for research efforts. He also served as Chairman of one of the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis Committees for the Protection of Human Subjects, and he was Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Health and Hospital Corporation Board of Trustees.

“He was a true pioneer in this space,” said Shelley Bizila, director of the Indiana University Research Integrity Office. “He never said ‘no’ to any service related to the IRB and was always available.”

Johnston grew up in North Carolina and attended medical school at Duke University, graduating in 1955. He completed residency at Washington University in St. Louis and came to IU as an endocrinology fellow. He joined the IU faculty upon completion of his fellowship.

Johnston was a celebrated researcher, having published more than 180 papers and 20 book chapters on metabolic bone diseases, especially osteoporosis. His major discoveries still impact science and medicine today.

He started by studying the parathyroid gland and then branched out into autosomal dominant osteopetrosis. He wrote one of the first accurate and complete descriptions of the clinical manifestations of the osteopetrosis disorder. In 1968, he wrote his first article about human bone mass measurements – about 20 years before bone densitometry came into routine clinical use – and from there on, bone density became a major focus of his career.

He pioneered the use of bone density in osteoporosis and demonstrated that lower bone mass was associated with higher fracture rates. He was the first to demonstrate that peak bone mass was mostly determined by genetics, and he started IU’s research efforts into the genetic determinants of bone density. His discoveries and clinical trials led to the registration of many therapies for osteoporosis and Paget's disease of bone which are still used today.

Johnston received the U.S. Public Health Service Career Research Development Award in 1963 and the Sandoz Prize for Gerontological Research in 1993. In 1996 he received the Frederic C. Bartter Award from the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research for outstanding clinical investigation in disorders of bone and mineral metabolism. In 1998 he received the Yank D. Coble, Jr., MD, Distinguished Service Award of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.

He served on the NIH Aging Review Committee, the NIH Nursing Science Review Committee, the NIA Geriatrics Review Committee, and the National Advisory Council on Aging of the NIA. He was President of the National Osteoporosis Foundation, Chairman of the NOF Scientific Advisory Board, and Associate Editor of the journal “Bone.”

Johnston is survived by his wife of 63 years, Marjorie; his son, Conrad (Pat) Johnston; his daughter, Elizabeth Emerson; and his grandchildren Conrad Emerson and Mary Emerson. His family has planned funeral services with Crown Hill Funeral Home & Cemetery for Feb. 16.