A legacy of excellence in teaching

By Crystal Mackay, MA'05 

A lecture with Marjorie Johnson, PhD, never just involved a stack of notes and some presentation slides.

The clinical anatomy professor used pipe cleaners and string to help teach the rotation of the intestine, plasticine to recreate the liver, and asked students to volunteer to dance with her at the front of the classroom to show the position of the aorta and inferior vena cava in the heart.

“My goal was to create opportunities for students, to show them that everyone is a learner. To make it fun to learn,” she said.

Johnson, a beloved anatomy and cell biology instructor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, retired this past September after almost 25 years at Western University, leaving behind a legacy of exceptional clinical anatomy teaching in the department.

Her love for science and anatomy began as a child living on a farm in rural Ontario. She spent summers hoeing sugar beets and pulling weeds, and then cooling off in the stream that ran through the property, occasionally pulling blood suckers off her toes. Her mom took care of the farm animals, birthing the little ones and taking care when they were sick.

“My mom wasn’t the type to stay in the house, she was very much involved in the farming. And any time there was a disease that went through the barn, she would do an autopsy and try to figure out what it was,” Johnson remembers. “That was my first exposure to medicine.”

Johnson spent her twenties travelling through Canada and the United States with her husband, pursuing higher education in kinesiology, physical education and anatomy. Their careers and education took them from Waterloo to Nashville, Tennessee, to Boston and Toronto.

Through it all, the couple grew their family from two to six, having four children throughout those years. “I was finishing up my PhD when I had my first child,” she said. “I remember sitting in our apartment in Boston, with the baby on my lap, typing – and this was before auto-erase, so if I made a mistake, I had to go back and do the whole thing over again.”

She recalls painstakingly typing out her thesis chapter by chapter, and mailing it off in stacks. “Somehow, I got it done,” she said.

Johnson continued in research for a time, but then realized her true passion was teaching. When their young family moved from Toronto to London, Johnson approached the director of the anatomy program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and began teaching her first course at Western that fall. Her fifth child, Gavin, was born that winter.

“I used to bring him to class with me, so I would be pushing him, sleeping in a stroller while I was lecturing,” she said. “He spent the first six months of his life in a stroller here.”

Those first few lectures were the basis for a long and productive career at Western. Johnson is recognized for forging important collaborations between basic scientists and clinicians, both in terms of education and research. 

She is also credited with the establishment of the Master of Clinical Anatomy Program which prepares the next generation of medical educators and scholars focused on the anatomical sciences. The unique non-thesis program was designed to meet the increasing need for instructors who can teach cadaveric gross anatomy.

“I think the real learning comes from the cadaver lab,” she said. “You can see it, you can feel it and appreciate the spaces and how things are related to each other and put together inside the body.”

Her walls are also full of accolades for excellence in teaching, including the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, the highest teaching honour in Canada. She was also named one of the six outstanding university teachers by the Ontario confederation of the University Faculty Association.

But she says her greatest achievements aren’t found on her CV. They are about the relationships that she formed with students and colleagues and the influence that they had on each other’s lives.

She considers one of her most important contributions to be a musical concert that she organized for the late Dr. Francis Chan, a much loved and highly regarded professor at Schulich School Medicine & Dentistry. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012, Johnson wanted to do something special for him.

“We knew that he loved art and music and he loved the students. So we put together a concert for Francis and invited former students back to perform,” she remembers. “And as many people showed up as they could on a cold Saturday morning. We could tell he was really moved. It was one of the best days.”

Johnson credits Dr. Chan with showing her the importance of getting involved in the School, and using her talents to the fullest. “I learned a lot about teaching from him, but I also learned a lot about being kind. He was just such an amazing, genuine person.”

And she continues to learn and use her talents to accomplish things in her retirement by volunteering her time in other ways. Johnson recently returned from a trip to Haiti with a group of nurses and physicians from Schulich Medicine & Dentistry as part of a Team Broken Earth (TBE) mission.

TBE was started by Dr. Andrew Furey, an orthopaedic surgeon practising in St. John’s, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since then surgical teams from across North America have gone to Haiti to offer their services to the health care community there. 

The team from London had expertise in spine surgery, and it was their goal to treat as many patients as they could in the seven days they were there, with no or minimal costs to the hospital and patients.

“The first day we arrived we met our first patient. He knew why we were there and he could not stop smiling even though he was laid up with a C6-7 spine fracture.  His goal was to be able to dance again, and I am sure he will,” she said. “We are so fortunate to live in Canada, have access to excellent education and most of us need nothing.  It is important we use our time, energy, expertise and good fortune to help when and where we can.”

Dr. Johnson says it is people that she is going to miss the most in her retirement, and says she was lucky to work with a group of people who inspired her.

“That’s what most work environments should be – a place to come and be with people and share ideas and fun. And accomplish things together.”