Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Obituary - John Johnson, 59

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 21 - February 22, 1996

John L. Johnson, whose pioneering research on differential Bacteroides species won him international recognition as a microbiologist, died last Friday (Feb. 16) at his Blacksburg home after a long illness. He was 59.

"He was an outstanding scientist, he was an excellent teacher, and he really cared about his work," said W.E.C. Moore, a friend and former colleague of Johnson's. "The world lost a top scientist in microbiology."

Moore, then head of the anaerobe laboratory, brought Johnson to Virginia Tech from his post-doctoral studies at the University of Washington-Seattle in 1968. "John did his best work here," Moore said.

That work earned Johnson the 1980 Bergey's Manual Trust Award, one of the most prestigious international awards given in his field. The Pasteur Institute of Paris named a bacterial species for Johnson, Acinetobacter johnsonii. That, Moore said, is a sign of exceptional respect and an indication of the international stature Johnson held in the field.

Moore and his wife, Lillian V.H. Moore, named a bacterial genus for Johnson, Johnsonella.

A native of Kanawha, Iowa, Johnson earned his bachelor's degree at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minn., and his master's and doctorate at Montana State University in Bozeman.

His work here was with anaerobic bacteria-bacteria that thrive in the absence of air, such as in the intestinal tract. His research makes it possible for doctors to quickly identify bacteria that cause microbial infections or diseases, expediting the treatment of seriously ill patients.

"John could define a species and we could determine which were true pathogens that caused diseases, and which were similar, but were not pathogens," said Moore. "It was very precise work. He was very meticulous, and showed a lot of caring in everything he did."

His work in the areas of the DNA relatedness of bacteria was carried out at the anaerobe lab and, more recently, at the Fralin Biotechnology Center. The techniques and procedures he developed are used internationally to compare the DNA of one bacterium with that of another bacterium.

In addition to being an internationally recognized researcher, Johnson was considered an excellent teacher, especially for graduate students and advanced undergraduate students, Moore said. "He really cared about his students, and he was very good with them."

Johnson is survived by his wife, Mary Ann H. Johnson, and two sons, Tommy Olaus Johnson and John Healey Johnson, all of Blacksburg.