Author Dr. Robert Johnson, known locally as “Dr. Bob,” expects to see printed copies of “Alaska Frontier Surgeon” arrive from the publisher any day now. The book tells the life story of his father, Arthur Holmes Johnson, and along the way provides first-hand insights into America and Kodiak during decades of dramatic history.
Johnson based the book on a collection of diaries and letters his father started before coming to Kodiak in 1938 to be part of the tiny community’s growth and Alaska’s transition to statehood. Contemporary photographs dating back almost 100 years accompany most of the story.
“I got to know my father a lot better by writing this book,” Johnson said.
The tale spans Arthur’s upbringing by missionary parents, his service in World War I and Depression-era struggles as a young physician in Oregon, and more than 25 years in Kodiak.
“He was intrepid,” Johnson said. “Nothing scared him.”
Arthur’s father was a British-born Methodist Episcopalian bishop and his mother a “died-in-the-wool Christian.” He accompanied the bishop as a missionary to Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) in his early 20s.
Johnson said Arthur’s missionary upbringing shaped his approach to life, although the nature of his faith evolved through his adult years. He read widely and enjoyed talking with educated people. He came to see service to others as a value common to all religions and the most important purpose in his life.
Arthur became a Unitarian and joined Rotary International because of the club’s emphasis on service.
“That’s what Rotary is doing and I’m happy to say that’s what he did,” said Johnson, himself a past president of the organization in Kodiak.
In the early 1920s Arthur courted and married Fostina “Frostie” Bishop, many of whose letters are also quoted in the book. Robert, their only child, was born in 1925. In “Alaska Frontier Surgeon” Johnson weaves his own memories from an early age into the quoted passages, adding structure and commentary.
In the summer of 1937 Arthur left his struggling practice in Portland, Ore., to take a summer job in Alaska, treating cannery workers in Naknek. He passed Kodiak while taking the boat to go home and fell in love with the Emerald Isle.
Back in Portland he tried to talk his family into moving to the remote Alaska town of about 550 people.
“He convinced us pretty well, I guess,” Johnson said.
The author still has a vivid memory of their 1938 arrival at Kodiak’s Erskine dock with their German shepherd.
“Every time a ship came in it was full of people and dogs,” he said.
The boy ran up the ladder of an oil tank to take in the scene, getting a wide view of oceans, mountains, people, gulls, eagles and a surprising number of cows.
During the Johnsons’ first few years here, Kodiak had no hospital. Arthur sometimes performed surgeries in the family kitchen, with Frostie sterilizing the instruments in her pressure cooker. They had no running water, few antibiotics and no X-ray equipment.
Arthur had to perform a range of procedures that specialists would perform in a large city. Until his son joined the practice in 1955, Arthur was the only doctor resident on the island.
Through all this time, Arthur kept up his diaries and saved his correspondence. After his death in 1964 the material was stored in a woodshed and remained there until about 10 years ago, when Johnson decided to organize the collection.
Some years later he thought of writing the book as a way to preserve and share the history. He had written many essays and letters to the editor, so he figured the wealth of resources, plus his own memory and a modern word processor, would make writing a book “a snap.”
The project proved harder than expected.
With more than 70 years to look back on, Johnson found organizing the story and his memories a challenge. But he produced a complete manuscript of more than 400 pages. Thanks to the help of his wife, Marian, and some editors, the final product comes in at 318 pages, now ready for the presses.
“The thing that held us up most was indexing,” Johnson said.
A lifetime of activity and an outgoing personality brought Arthur into contact with prominent citizens, generals and admirals. He had a hand in a wide array of projects to develop the community and territory, including the library that bore his name.
“You can’t believe how much the man did,” Johnson said, noting his father helped found the Alaska State Medical Association and served as president of the Alaska State Board of Education.
Arthur and Frostie were traveling in the Australian Outback when they learned about the devastating March 1964 quake and tsunamis in Kodiak. They returned to take part in the recovery, but Arthur died that August.
Dr. Bob maintained Arthur’s legacy through a career in Kodiak. “Alaska Frontier Surgeon” lets readers in on both doctors’ long, colorful experiences.
Johnson has no specific plans for marketing the book yet, but hopes to hold a reading in Kodiak and announce how people can get copies.
Contact the Daily Mirror newsroom at firstname.lastname@example.org.