The July 6 obituary for Emery A. Johnson gave an incorrect age. He was 76. (Published 7/8/2005)

Emery A. Johnson, 78, former assistant surgeon general and the longest-serving director of the Indian Health Service, died of cancer June 26 at his Rockville home.

Dr. Johnson ran the health service from 1969 to 1981, a time of tremendous change in the agency, the principal health care provider and health advocate for 1.6 million American Indians and Alaska natives.

He was a major contributor to the development of legislation such as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976, both of which still govern federal policy. During his tenure, construction of major hospitals and clinics increased dramatically.

"He's kind of an icon in Indian country," said Jacquelyn Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest tribal government group in the United States. "He humanized health care . . . and was instrumental really in allowing Indian people to take control of their own health care destiny" by promoting Indian professionals and encouraging the establishment of clinics that offered traditional and mainstream medical practices.

Charles W. Grim, the current health service director, and Robert McSwain, the deputy director, said Dr. Johnson cared deeply about the quality of care provided by the service and about the agency's relationship with the people it served.

"He stated in the past that his greatest political challenge was gaining the trust of tribal leaders," Grim said. "He made sure we had the consumer-driven health advisory board at each of our units. . . . and made sure not only our facilities were updated but our people were well trained and capable. And he worked to make sure that the [director who succeeded him] was an Indian person."

After retirement, Dr. Johnson was a consultant to organizations of Indians and Alaska natives and testified before Congress. He also spoke out against President Ronald Reagan's 1984 veto of a reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Act.

"The veto is part of a broader pattern," Dr. Johnson told a Washington Post reporter at the time. "I'm afraid this administration wants to turn back the clock 30 years to the days when the only service that the federal government provided was a hospital that Indians had to crawl to."

Dr. Johnson was born in Sioux Falls, S.D. He graduated from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and received his medical degree from the University of Minnesota in 1954. He received a master of public health degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1964.

He joined the Public Health Service after medical school, just as the Bureau of Indian Affairs was turning over the Indian Health Service to the Public Health Service. Dr. Johnson stayed with the agency throughout his career.

He was a reservation staff physician in Winnebago, Neb., and White Earth, Minn., and an administrator in Billings, Mont., Phoenix and Silver Spring. He helped develop the John F. Kennedy National Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia, and was a consultant to the Peace Corps and World Health Organization in Africa.

In 1979, Dr. Johnson received one of the Rockefeller Public Service Awards, administered by Princeton University, for outstanding public service by a federal employee. He also was awarded the Public Health Service's Commendation Medal, its Meritorious Service Medal and its Distinguished Service Medal.

He was a member of Rockville United Methodist Church.

Survivors include his wife, Nancy Mourning Johnson of Rockville; four children, Steven Johnson, Scott Johnson, Jennifer Johnson-Mehallick and Jill Unger, all of Rockville; and a grandson.

Emery Johnson was in charge of the agency from 1969 to 1981.