He made the blind see again and relieved the pain of many a performer.
Minnesota veterinarian Ralph Johnson, who embraced the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture for horses and other animals amid skepticism among his colleagues, died Sunday at the Veterans Home in Luverne.
Johnson had been suffering from complications of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that is compared to but has more severe symptoms that Parkinson's. He was 80.
From the mid-1970s until his retirement in 2005, while practicing in the southern Minnesota community of Fairmont and later in Waconia, Johnson's success with acupuncture has left a legacy of solving various health puzzles across the country.
"I met Ralph when he came to the Arabian Nationals in Albuquerque" in 1993, said Annie Whitney, whose gelding Rhett was struggling with chronic soreness and had been treated by four veterinarians.
"Hundreds of dollars and every idea in the book did not get to the bottom Rhett's problem," Whitney recalled. "But 'manipulating' the acupressure points showed exactly where Rhett was hurting, and he was like a new horse."
Whitney remembered crying "for a couple of days, I was so happy. Several people thought my horse had died, but it was tears of joy not sadness."
Johnson's son Blake, who joined his father in practice in Waconia, said his father was introduced to equine acupuncture during a veterinarians seminar in Las Vegas in the mid-1960s.
"It really made sense to him that there really was something there," Blake Johnson said. "And it just took off from there."
Johnson said his father endured the doubters among his fellow vets "who would really pooh-pooh it and say negative things. But Dad always enjoyed a challenge."
Just as in humans, acupuncture involves inserting needles in strategic locations to "stimulate the body to heal itself," Blake Johnson said. "We're fine tuning things, catching things early. ... anytime you want to stimulate energy flow."
Acupuncture has done particularly well healing horses that perform, whether it be in shows, jumping or thoroughbreds at Canterbury Park and other tracks. "Some of them are very high end," Blake Johnson said. "And some are just weekend horses."
In 1983, a Minnesota Horse Council newsletter told of Johnson treating a 13-year-old mare's blindness with acupuncture.
With sight regained, she no longer "bumps into obstacles or walks in disoriented circles," the council reported.
Johnson told the council that up to that point he had restored sight for eight of 10 animals he treated for blindness.
Whitney said that Ralph Johnson "changed my view of cause and effect in horse physiology. I did write him a letter when he retired [in 2005] telling him how much I appreciated him teaching me his theories and that I truly listened, about how much it had changed my life with horses and caused me to be more compassionate and how I could help them be all they can be for me."
Ralph Johnson, who also raised Arabian and reining horses, graduated from the University of Minnesota veterinary school in 1961. He practiced in Fairmont until starting the Interlaken Centre in Waconia in 1983. His practice was more than just horses. Family pets and cattle were often his patients.
Ralph Johnson was preceded in death by brothers Charles Johnson and Claude Johnson. Along with son Blake, he is survived by his wife, Bonnie; son Brad Johnson, of Oronoco; and sister Norma Talbert of Maryland. Visitation is scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Johnson Funeral home in Waconia, with services at 1 p.m. Saturday at First Congregational Church, 500 10th Av. SE., Minneapolis.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482