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Dr. Paula A. Johnson

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1959

Medical School

Harvard Medical School



Career Path

Education: Teaching
Internal medicine: Cardiology
Dr. Paula A. Johnson


Dr. Paula Johnson was the first African American in the history of Brigham and Women’s Hospital to be chosen as chief medical resident.


As a young girl and adolescent, I enjoyed learning about science and I was also attracted to the idea of direct service to people. The combination of the challenge of science and the altruism of helping people were very appealing. As I moved through college, I was exposed to many of the fascinating fields/activities that could be associated with medicine, such as research and addressing health policy issues that affected people's health from a broader perspective. Having my eyes opened to this allowed me to broaden my vision of what a physician could do and strengthened my resolve to attend medical school.


Dr. Paula Johnson is a women's health specialist and a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease. She conceived of and developed one of the first facilities in the country to focus on heart disease in women.

Johnson knew from childhood that she wanted to be a doctor. She majored in biology at Radcliffe College of Harvard University. After graduating in 1980, she was admitted to Harvard Medical School, where she became interested in clinical epidemiology (the study of the causes, spread, and control of diseases in populations). She took a year off to study at the Harvard School of Public Health and earned both her medical degree and her master's in public health in 1985. While doing her residency at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), she became fascinated by cardiology and chose it as her specialty.

At BWH, Dr. Johnson was made chief medical resident in 1990, the first woman to hold that position in the history of the hospital. As chief medical resident, she was able to put into practice all she had learned about teaching. As teacher and mentor to more than 100 residents and Harvard Medical School students, Johnson saw her job as not only instructing them, but also helping them make the overall experience the best it could bet. She also worked closely with one of her own mentors, Marshall Wolf, M.D., director of resident training, and with the BWH staff on administrative projects.

Dr. Johnson went on to work in the hospital's cardiac transplant service, where she combined clinical care and research. She found clinical work demanding but rewarding, with emotional highs and lows, but ultimately gratifying when a heart transplant was successful.

She has served as director of Quality Management Services at Brigham and Women's, where she was responsible for developing systems of measuring progress in the quality, efficiency, and effectiveness of patient care. In her current position, she hopes to make great advances in women's health. Dr. Johnson's concerns throughout her career have centered on access to and quality of cardiology care for women. Cardiovascular disease in women can manifest itself differently than it does in men. The early symptoms of heart attack such as chest pain and pressure from left arm to jaw are typically experienced by men, for example, while women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, unusual perspiration, and abdominal discomfort.

Dr. Johnson observed that "BWH has an extraordinary opportunity to bring together clinical and academic talent from across the institution to achieve our ultimate goal—improving the health and well-being of women...One of our core responsibilities will be to address critical questions...such as, 'How do sex and gender impact health and health outcomes?' and 'How can health disparities among different groups of women be eliminated?' "

Dr. Johnson founded and headed the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology and was chief of the Division of Women's Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She also directed the Center for Cardiovascular Disease in Women, which aims to develop new prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation strategies through research as it serves women in all stages of life. One focus of the Center is to reduce the risk of heart disease by educating women about life style choices—including smoking, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise—that endanger the heart and blood vessels. Because African-American women are 50 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than white women, many of the Center's efforts are directed to empowering black women in matters of their health and to examining relationships between race and disease.

In 2016, Dr. Johnson became the 14th president at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Since I did not have any direct role models with regard to medicine, learning the "language of medicine" and the expected behaviors in medical school were significant challenges. You quickly learn that medicine is more than knowing the information, it is a culture. To do well in that culture, you need to learn the ways of the culture. You don't have to lose yourself while doing this. This has been a lesson I have carried with me as I have moved through my career. If one chooses to be part of a mainstream organization, you can stay true to yourself, make a difference, and stand up for those who do not have voices and still "fit in".

Who was my mentor?

My parents played an extremely important role in my life. They taught me that by staying true to your dreams you could reach your goals, even if your goals have to be modified from time to time.

Other mentors included a particular upper classman while I was in college. He helped to teach me the culture of Harvard and also helped me step by step navigate my way through the pre-medical curriculum. To this day, I call this friend for advice and input.

My husband has played an important role in mentoring me to have the courage to have a voice in support of others (and myself) when needed.

I have also had research and clinical mentors who have played very important roles.

How has my career evolved over time?

I never would have thought that I would be doing what I am doing ten years ago. That has been one of the wonderful things about medicine. I am constantly evolving, as is medicine. I started searching for a way to address larger health issues by attending the Harvard School of Public Health and then began a relatively traditional academic career, combining research, clinical work, and teaching. My career has taken different paths that have been enriched by my "non-work" related experiences. I took chances in taking on positions that were less traditional that gave me administrative skills. I am now doing a job that embodies my passion for women's health and my desire to work both with individual patients but also to change the system in which we live in order for women to lead healthier lives.

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