A Frontier Surgeon: Doctor-Turned-Writer Documents Father’s Past


Brianna Gibbs/KMXT

A former Kodiak doctor recently dabbled in the art of book writing while documenting his own family history in Alaska.

Dr. Bob Johnson’s new book, “Alaska Frontier Surgeon,” captures the life story of his father, the late Dr. Arthur Holmes Johnson, who was the first physician to call Kodiak home. Johnson said his dad first stopped in Kodiak in the late 1930s, on his way back to Oregon after working as a doctor in Nak Nek for the summer. He said his dad fell in love with the island and its small community.
“It was a village, about 550 people. That’s sure not many people to support a doctor, but Kodiak captured him, as it had captured others.”

Johnson said he never imagined writing a book, but the idea came to him long after his father passed away and he made a family discovery.
“I came across his diaries and copies of all the letters he had written to and received from his relatives – his family and friends. When my mother died I cataloged all of these by person and date.”
After his 80th birthday, Johnson said he realized the years were ticking away in terms of documenting his father’s compelling history.
“I finally acknowledged that I was getting old and might die someday and they would all go to waste. I couldn’t let that happen.”

Johnson said the research for the book had already been done – in the sense that his father detailed his entire life in the diaries and letters that were kept.
“You know I can hardly imagine how he did all that he did and wrote about it at the same time.”

Johnson calls the book a pseudo-autobiography. The first portion of it was written through an objective voice, but perspective shifted once he joined the story.
“And then I began to speak as his son. And I was part of the program, but I didn’t talk much about me, I just talked about and added my own observations to what was going on at the time. So I participated in the story as a member of the group, but it was still a story of A. Holmes Johnson.”
Johnson said it was interesting to learn about his father in such a detailed, documented way.
“Well it was an experience. I knew him pretty well, because he spent time talking to me about his philosophy and his beliefs and that sort of thing. And I practiced medicine with him for 26 years, so I got to know him very well. But not as well as I got to know him after I read his diary and read the letters that were written to him and from him and especially the most delightful experience of the whole book was the romance between him and my mother.”
The book details many of his father’s stories and surgeries in rural Alaska, procedures that Johnson said are impressive even today.
“That man was intrepid. I was never that way. I was never that confident. He would tackle anything. Of course there was no one around to help. And so you’re kind of stuck with doing that. And he did some amazing surgery.”
While he enjoyed the experience, Johnson said it’s not likely he’ll write another book. Still, he said he was pleased to document his family’s history, as well as a sizable portion of Kodiak’s, too.
Johnson will present the book and provide signed copies during a presentation at the Kodiak Public Library on Saturday at 5 p.m. You can also hear KMXT’s full interview with Johnson during Talk of the Rock on Tuesday at 12:30 p.m.

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