Embryology History - John Johnston

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John Black Johnston (1868-1939)

Prof. John Black Johnston (1868-1939)


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Obituary - Anatomical Record (1939)


John Black Johnston was one of the founders of what came to be called the American school of comparative neurology, a contributor of an impressive amount of anatomical knowledge that has stood the test of time and for 25 years an exceptionally progressive educational administrator.

He was born in Belle Center, Ohio, October 3, 1868; graduated from the University of Michigan (Ph.B., 1893); served there 6 years as assistant and instructor and received the Ph.D. degree in 1899. He married Juliet Morton Butler (M.S., University of Michigan, 1898) of Ann Arbor the year of his doctorate.

Then followed 15 years during which he produced an astonishing amount of work chiefly on the morphology and evolution of the forebrain and of the mechanism of correlation of the vertebrate nervous system. From the University of Michigan he went as Associate Professor of Zoology to the University of West Virginia, being, as he said ‘‘head, body and tail’’ of the department. Here he was at once advanced to the professorship. During 1904-1905 he went abroad and studied at the Naples Zoological Station and at Freiburg, Mrs. Johnston in the meantime taking charge of his classes at Morgantown. In 1906 he published his widely known book, ‘‘The Nervous System of Vertebrates’’, which presents a fundamental plan of organization of the nervous system on a functional basis extensively followed by subsequent neurologists.

In 1907 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Anatomy of the Nervous System at the University of Minnesota, advanced to Associate Professor of Comparative Neurology in 1908 and to Professor in 1909. He became Dean of the College of Science, Literature and Arts in 1914. Before assuming the deanship he went abroad for 6 months to study the administration of European universities and to meet leading neurologists.

From 1910 to 1913 he served as secretary of the medical faculty and from 1911 to 1914 he was editor of research publications of the University. By 1923 he had produced forty-five scientific papers and a guide to embryology, in addition to the book on the nervous system. After retirement to within 3 weeks of his death he worked intermittently on a popular version of the Descent of Man, which was well along.

Doctor Johnston’s scientific career was motivated by a consistent program of research which was formulated at the beginning and carried through with great vigor and fidelity to the original purpose. His doctor’s dissertation on the brain of the sturgeon, Acipenser, is a remarkable document which will always be ranked as a classic. In the selection of this primitive generalized type as point of departure for subsequent work he showed rare insight.

When he began his work the extensive literature of comparative neurology was chaotic and much of it almost unintelligible. There were few accepted guiding principles. He brought order out of this chaos. With an intimate and unsurpassed first-hand knowledge of the internal structure of the brains of all classes of vertebrates and excellent ability in generalization, his descriptions are models of accuracy and clarity and illuminated by morphological interpretations of stimulating originality. As an active member of the editorial board of The Journal of Comparative Neurology from 1908 to 1933, and of the Ergebnisse und Fortschritte der Zoologie from 1907, he performed exacting and time-consuming duties, promptly, faithfully and judiciously.

While Dean Johnston retained his professorship in comparative neurology and carried on research along this line as late as 1922, administrative duties interfered drastically. Besides he was cognizant of important educational problems that needed investigating. He therefore turned his attention to such questions as the correlation between high school rating and college suecess and the development of college aptitude tests. Orientation of incoming students, individualizing of their instruction as they mature and related problems received extensive study. As chairman of the Committee on Educational Testing of the American Council on Education he influenced greatly its activities.

Thus after an enviable career as a ‘‘starred’’ anatomist, he became a recognized leader in quite a different field, publishing thirty-seven educational papers (six being chapters in books) (1913-1937) and three additional books (‘‘The Liberal College in Changing Society,’’ 1931; ‘‘Education for Democracy,’’ 1934; and ‘‘Scholarship and Democracy,’’ 1937). As an administrator he was absolutely fair and dependable, instilling confidence and possessing the gift of getting new things tried and keeping harmony in a large heterogeneous faculty.

As a teacher he is remembered as a modest personality with clear and simple diction, marshalling masses of detail into vivid and orderly scientific concepts made possible by a gifted insight and a conviction of purpose. The significance he placed on practical work in the laboratory is evidenced by his paper ‘“A New Method of Brain Dissection’? (1908), which approaches the internal neural structures by functional systems, progressing in the order of the direction of conduction where possible—a method that has amply been justified.

In addition to membership in the American Association of Anatomists, Dean Johnston was a charter member of the Michigan Academy of Science and of the Minnesota Neurological Society ; member of the American Society of Zoologists, the American Eugenics Society and the American Society of Naturalists ; a fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science. He also belonged to Sigma Xi, Phi Beta Kappa and Gamma Alpha, scientific and academic honor societies. In recognition of his achievements both as a neuroanatomist and as an administrator, he was given the honorary degree of Sc.D. by the University of Michigan in 1933.

After retiring in 1937 he traveled in the Orient and later in South America; but had to return on account of illness. His death oceurred November 18, 1939 at Palo Alto, California.

Mrs. Johnston and a son, Norris, survive.

A. T. Rasmussen, Chairman

C. Judson Herrick

Olor Larsell


Johnston JB. The Nervous System of Vertebrates. (1907) Blakiston's Son & Co., London.

Johnston JB. The morphology and subdivision of the fore-brain vesicle in vertebrates. (1909) Anat. Rec. 3: 200-260.

Johnston JB. The limit between ectoderm and entoderm in the mouth and the origin of the taste buds. (1909) Anat. Rec. 3: 261-262.

Johnston JB. The evolution of the cerebral cortex. (1910) Anat. Rec. 4: 143.

Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2024, March 2) Embryology Embryology History - John Johnston. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Embryology_History_-_John_Johnston

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