Remembering Dr. John Murray, lung specialist who died of complications from COVID-19

Murray lived in Berkeley with his wife, the novelist Diane Johnson, for 25 years. They moved to Paris in 1994, which is where he died.

Dr. John Murray, known as the “lung god” for his research on acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), the principal fatal symptom of COVID-19, died of the novel coronavirus in Paris on March 24. He was 92.

Murray was internationally known for his research and clinical work on lungs and pulmonary disease. During his 23-year tenure at the Pulmonary and Critical Care Division at UC San Francisco, he helped carve out the study and treatment of lung disease as a distinct field. He also created the hospital’s first intensive care unit.

Murray’s approach to the teaching of clinical respiratory physiology was regarded as innovative because he developed a team-centered approach around the patient, the family, the social worker, the nurses and the medical staff in the ICU. That way of treating patients is now universal. He also helped establish the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and served as a leader of the American Thoracic Society.

Murray’s research later extended to HIV and the pulmonary complications associated with it. He was also the author of numerous textbooks on lungs and pulmonary disease and was the editor of the American Review of Respiratory Disease.

In recognition of his contribution to UC San Francisco and the medical understanding of lungs, the UCSF Department of Medicine created the John Murray Award for Excellence in Internal Medicine. It is awarded annually to top faculty members. There is also a distinguished professorship named after Murray.

“I have long admired Dr. Murray,” Talmadge E. King Jr., dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, said in a statement. “He had an enormous influence on the careers of many young physicians, very much including my own. I admired his keen intellect, amazing skill as a professor of medicine, and his unique ability to present (in his writings and public presentations) difficult topics in a clear and concise manner. Dr. Murray will be dearly missed by his many friends and colleagues at UCSF and throughout the world.”

Murray was a tall man who cut a distinctive figure as he made his hospital rounds because he always wore a bow tie. During the week he lay in the ICU in Paris, dying, somewhat ironically of a disease he identified and researched, many of the nurses at UC San Francisco wore clip-on bow ties in his honor.

Murray lived on El Camino Real in Berkeley for 25 years, from 1967 to 1992. He moved there when he married his second wife, Diane Johnson, a prominent novelist best known for Le Divorce, the first in a trilogy of novels on contemporary French life. After Murray retired in 1994, the couple moved to Paris, although they kept an apartment in San Francisco and a house at Lake Tahoe. They would come back to the U.S. every summer.

Murray and Johnson had a broad social circle in Berkeley, according to Murray’s son, which included Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, the writer Alice Adams and the filmmaker Philip Kaufman.

Murray loved to read and to attend the opera. He also enjoyed fishing for trout in the streams of the Sierra Nevada and at the Big Horn River in Montana.

Murray was born on June 8, 1927, in Mineola, New York, and grew up in Los Angeles. He went to Stanford University for both his undergraduate degree and medical school. He finished training at San Francisco General and Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn and also lived in London for a time. Murray spent nine years teaching at UCLA and then joined the staff at UCSF.

Murray had three children with his first wife, Sarah Sherman, whom he met at Stanford: James, Douglas and Elizabeth. James predeceased him. In addition to his children and wife, Murray is survived by his stepsons Kevin Johnson and Simon Johnson, his stepdaughters Darcy Tell and Amanda Johnson, and 14 grandchildren.

Memorial services are pending. Donations may be made to the John F. Murray Distinguished Professorship in Pulmonary Medicine

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.