Dr. Travis Johnson, Asheville Master of Public Health program founder, dies at 43

February 18, 2020

Travis Johnson Headshot

Travis Johnson, MD, MPH

Travis Duane Johnson, MD, MPH, associate professor in the Public Health Leadership Program at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and interim director for the Master of Public Health (MPH) Program’s Place-Based Health concentration in Asheville, N.C., died on Feb. 13 after an eight-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43 years old.

Johnson was a passionate advocate for providing maternal, child and other public health services to underserved communities. After earning degrees from Furman University and the Medical University of South Carolina, he came to the University of North Carolina on a rural medicine residency with the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). Johnson later completed a family medicine residency at MAHEC on a fellowship in international and public health, after which he went on to earn his Master of Public Health degree at Harvard University.

Dr. Travis Johnson poses with Ramses and Dr. Vaughn Upshaw

Dr. Travis Johnson poses with Ramses and Dr. Vaughn Upshaw.

In his professional career, Johnson worked as a physician in rural settings within North and South Carolina, as well as internationally, serving as a medical missionary with Serge in Bundibugyo, Uganda. In addition to founding the Believe Child Advocacy Center in Hendersonville N.C., Travis launched and served as interim director for the Gillings School’s MPH Program in Asheville, N.C. with MAHEC. He also co-taught the Public Health Leadership Program’s Leadership Workshop (PUBH 791) with Professor Vaughn Upshaw, DrPH, EdD.

Johnson’s philosophies on teaching, scholarship and practice were inspired by his drive to provide place-based care to local populations through collaboration with community partners. In a 2018 interview with the Gillings School, Johnson said that he firmly believed the best and most innovative teaching takes place outside of the classroom.

“My dream teaching goal would be to partner with local agencies to give students the opportunity to solve cases based on real-life issues in real-time,” Johnson said in the interview. “This approach would allow students to further hone their skills through creative and critical thinking while also working on current public health issues in the field.”

Dr. Travis Johnson (right), interim director of the Asheville MPH program, poses with Drs. Ameena Batada (left) and Amy Lanou, consultants and instructors in the program.

Dr. Travis Johnson (right), who was interim director of the Asheville MPH program, poses with Drs. Ameena Batada (left) and Amy Lanou, consultants and instructors in the program.

In just a few short years, with the establishment of the Gillings School’s MPH Program in Asheville and Place-Based Health concentration, Travis was able to realize his dream goal – a testament to his commitment and drive.

His battle with cancer informed his research and practice in public health. In his 2017 keynote address at MAHEC’s graduation, he described how his experience with cancer gave him a greater perspective on the complex and remarkable aspects of life.

Johnson’s work and spirit impacted nearly everyone he encountered. MAHEC CEO Jeff Heck, MD, said, “He was a family physician by training, and his passion for public health made him the ideal person to launch and lead our new Master of Public Health program. MAHEC was a better place because of his vision and dedication.”

“He was an amazing person taken by cancer too soon,” said Anna Schenck, PhD, MSPH, associate dean for practice at the Gillings School and director of the Public Health Leadership Program. “Everyone who met him was touched by his unbridled optimism and enthusiasm.”

Dr. Travis Johnson poses with Ramses and the Public Health Leadership Program's Fall 2019 cohort

Dr. Travis Johnson poses with Ramses and the Public Health Leadership Program’s Fall 2019 cohort.

A memorial to celebrate Johnson will be held on Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. at Arden Presbyterian Church in Asheville. The family will receive friends after the service at the church. The family asks that attendees wear a bright color in honor of his joyful life.


Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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