Former March of Dimes Medical Director Honored For Work To Prevent Birth Defects

February 27, 2013

A former March of Dimes medical director who pushed for federally mandated folic acid fortification and led a public education campaign on the benefits of the B vitamin in preventing serious birth defects of the brain and spine will receive the Godfrey Oakley award for his achievements.

Richard B. Johnston, Jr. M.D., professor of pediatrics, and associate dean for research development, at the University of Colorado, School of Medicine, served as March of Dimes medical director between 1992 and 1998. He worked with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to secure folic acid fortification of grains.

“Dick Johnston has had an amazing impact on the health of babies for decades through his work to prevent neural tube defects,” said Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes. “Folic acid fortification of our grain supply is a major public health success and has prevented thousands of serious birth defects of the brain and spine, such as anencephaly and spina bifida. Since folic acid was added to the grain food supply in 1998, our nation has seen a 26 percent decrease in these birth defects.”

Dr. Johnston will receive the Godfrey Oakley award, given to those who have made significant contributions in the field of birth defects, during the National Birth Defects Prevention Network annual meeting held in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Godfrey Oakley is one of the leading researchers and advocates on folic acid and its benefits. Dr. Johnston worked closely with Dr. Oakley on the folic acid educational awareness campaign.

Folic acid is a B vitamin vital to a healthy birth and a healthy baby. In pregnant women, it is necessary for proper fetal development of the brain and spinal cord, especially in the first trimester. Neural tube defects occur in the first few weeks following conception, often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

The US Public Health Service and the March of Dimes recommends that all women of child-bearing age take a daily multi-vitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid. After pregnancy is confirmed, women should increase their folic acid consumption to 600 to 800 micrograms per day. Folic acid is the only vitamin known to prevent birth defects.

Dr. Johnston’s efforts helped increase folic acid levels among women of childbearing age. Beginning in 1992, he headed a public health education campaign to increase folic acid intake among women, working closely with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and food and vitamin manufacturers.

Dr. Johnston pushed for federally mandated folic acid fortification of grains in order to ensure that all women received the necessary amount of folic acid. As medical director of the March of Dimes, he collaborated with the CDC and the FDA to stress the benefits of the vitamin. He mobilized the medical community to support the fortification strategy.

Dr. Johnston received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Vanderbilt University. He served as president of the Society for Pediatric Research, American Pediatric Society, and International Pediatric Research Foundation. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine National Academies of Science. In 2008, he received the prestigious Howland Award for his work in pediatrics.

In 2013, the March of Dimes celebrates its 75th Anniversary and its ongoing work to help babies get a healthy start in life. Early research led to the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines that all babies still receive. Other breakthroughs include new treatments for premature infants and children with birth defects. About 4 million babies are born each year in the United States, and all have benefitted from the March of Dimes life saving research and education.