Prof. Johan Arild Aarli (1936-2023)

By Raad Shakir

Johan Aarli

Johan Arild Aarli, former president of the World Federation of Neurology (WFN), passed away on the March 24, 2023, at the age of 86 years. His name is recognized and admired by neurologists across the world.

Johan graduated from Bergen in 1961, where he also did his training in neurology and basic training in immunology. He obtained his specialist in neurology status in 1970, defended his doctoral thesis in 1972 (muscle antibodies in myasthenia gravis) and was appointed professor in 1977.

Prof. Aarli developed the department of neurology at Bergen University Hospital making it a leading center of neuroimmunological research. He was subsequently appointed dean of the faculty of medicine at Bergen, and chair of the Norwegian Association of Neurology.

In addition to his vast number of scientific writings, he was a pioneer in the field studying the impact of neurobiology on culture and history. He was a prominent member of the Norwegian Neuro-Literary Club, contributing to all their books on neurology, art, and history and co-authored the book on the history of Norwegian neurology. He was a member of the steering committee of the successful Norwegian Year of the Brain 1995. Johan’s work in Norway was so distinguished that in 1996, he was made a Knight, First Class of the order of Saint Olav by King Harald V.

When the European Federation of Neurological Societies (EFNS) was founded, he was the first Norwegian delegate (1991-1998) and was quickly appointed Chair of the Teaching Committee of the EFNS (1997- 2002) and then appointed EFNS Secretary-General (2003-05). Internationally, Prof. Aarli was the Norwegian delegate to the WFN 1998-2001, elected as WFN vice president, and was thereafter elected WFN president during the Sydney World Congress of Neurology in 2005.

Having had the honor of working with him, Johan had the extraordinary ability to calmly drive the WFN to many new areas and initiatives. He developed the collaboration between the WFN and WHO, which started with the publication of the Neurology Atlas in 2004 followed by “Neurological Disorders: Public Health Challenges” in 2006. In June 2019, he represented the WFN in the 10-year project to produce the ICD11. The collaboration continues today.

In 2007, his calm diplomacy and negotiation skills enormously helped in bringing the Chinese Neurological Society to become a full member of the WFN.

Johan saw the need to develop improved delivery and increased rural distribution of neurological care, and is considered by our African colleagues as the father of the WFN Africa Initiative. He started the Africa Task force in 2005, which eventually evolved into the African Academy of Neurology. Site visits to establish training centres in Africa and Latin America started during his presidency.

As if all this was not enough, Prof. Aarli wrote the “History of the WFN, the First 50 Years” published by Oxford University Press in 2014. Another eminent previous WFN president Lord Walton described the book, “without question a major scholarly work based upon careful historical research and an encyclopedic knowledge.” It is the principal source on the history of neurology in the second half of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries.

Prof. Aarli’s enormous achievements for international neurology were deservedly recognized by the WFN when he was awarded the medal for services to international neurology during the 2013 Vienna World Congress.

Johan was a soft-spoken, gentle, charming, pleasant man, with a disarming demeanor. His requests for neurologists from all parts of the world to serve the WFN in various capacities were asked simply in a calming manner “would you have a little time to give to the WFN.” I do not think anyone ever refused. He was generous, a wonderful host and a real friend. You could go to him with any problem or issue and come out fully satisfied by his wise and sound opinion. He was known to take time to think and ask for advice prior to making major decisions. He always made all those around him feel comfortable with his decisions as they would have been thoroughly thought through. A leader, who shall certainly be sorely missed.

He is survived by a loving family, Gullborg his wife of 62 years, five children, Anen, Ragna, Gunn, Bernt and Maria, 15 grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

Johan Aarli´s last years were overshadowed by chronic ill heath that finally ended the life of this remarkable neurologist. •

Prof. Raad Shakir is a past-president of the World Federation of Neurology.