Princeton Weekly Bulletin   February 18, 2008, Vol. 97, No. 16   prev   next   current

Ernest Johnson, accomplished researcher and educator, dies

By Hilary Parker

Princeton NJ — Renowned educator and researcher Ernest Johnson, an expert in process control, nuclear fusion power and hazardous waste management, died Feb. 2. He was 89.

Johnson spent nearly four decades at Princeton after joining the Department of Chemical Engineering in 1948. He was a veritable institution in the department throughout his tenure at Princeton — highly respected for his research, adored for his teaching and well known for his entertaining tales.

photograph of Ernest Johnson

Ernest Johnson

“Ernie, as we all knew him, was loved and admired by everyone with whom he interacted because of his wisdom, gentleness and nobility of spirit,” said Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and acting chair of chemical engineering. “He was a repository of knowledge about the history of the chemical engineering department and a gifted storyteller.”

An active member of the Princeton community, Johnson held a variety of leadership positions at the department and University levels over the years. 

“Ernie was a wonderful raconteur at any occasion, from advising graduate students to reminiscing with visiting alumni,” said William Russel, dean of the Graduate School and the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Chemical Engineering. “But he was also a substantive citizen of the University, acting as department chair after the death of Leon Lapidus [from 1977 to 1978], traveling with staff from the Office of Development and serving as special adviser to the president when Harold Shapiro took office. Many of us have benefited from Ernie’s contributions to Princeton and will remember him fondly.”

Johnson participated in the planning of the Engineering Quadrangle, which was dedicated in 1962. He also served as associate dean of the faculty from 1962 to 1966.

From 1955 until his retirement from the University in 1986, Johnson was closely affiliated with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, assessing technological barriers to developing controlled nuclear fusion as a source for plentiful and environmentally benign power. His work involved devising conceptual designs for commercial power plants.

Johnson’s legacy at Princeton continues to this day. Each year, one graduating senior is elected by his or her classmates to receive the Ernest Johnson Award. The award was established in 1985 by the Central Jersey Section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AICHE) and is presented annually to the senior in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Princeton deemed by classmates to have displayed exemplary character, service, spirit and leadership. Additionally, the Engineering Quadrangle is home to the Ernest F. Johnson Undergraduate Lounge, which was established in 1995 by a gift from Henry S.P. Kao, a 1973 chemical engineering graduate alumnus.

“Professor Johnson and I developed a very close relationship throughout the years,” said Kao, the chairman and chief executive officer of Wah Ming Hong Holdings Ltd. in Hong Kong. “He was a scholar, a gentleman, always very supportive of the needs of his students and never over-demanding. He very much let his students run their own course and lent a helping hand when asked. In this way, he believed his research students could mature faster.”

“With the passing of Ernie, an important slice of Princetoniana disappears,” said William Schowalter, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science Emeritus. “He was a close colleague and friend, and the stories he told were without equal. Ernie had a tidbit of Princeton history appropriate for every occasion. When he held forth with his penchant for wry humor, he would keep us from taking ourselves, or Princeton, more seriously than they deserved. What better way to sum up than to use one of Ernie’s favorites: ‘Yes, they were giants in those days!’”

Johnson was born April 4, 1918, in Jamestown, N.Y., and earned his bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University in 1940. He went to work at the Barrett Division of Allied Chemical & Dye Corp. immediately following his graduation from Lehigh. In his six years at the company, he held increasingly responsible roles, culminating in his position as an area technical supervisor with oversight of five chemical plants. He then returned to graduate school and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949.

After joining the Princeton faculty, Johnson remained active in industry through a variety of consulting activities with petroleum, chemical and food companies as well as engineering and environmental firms. For six years, Johnson served on the board of Associated Universities Inc., the corporation that formerly managed the Brookhaven National Laboratory and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. He was the first two-term chairman of the board and also briefly served as acting president of the corporation.

In the 1980s, Johnson initiated a graduate course in hazardous waste management and, with support from foundations, industrial firms and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, led the development of a practical method for controlling heavy metal waste from the electroplating industry.

Johnson received numerous accolades from professional societies for his research and teaching. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, he was honored for the guidance he provided to shape the Central Jersey Section of the AICHE. During National Engineers Week in 1993, he was named New Jersey Engineer of the Year, and he received a lifetime achievement award for engineering education the following year. 

The Lehigh University Alumni Association honored him in 2000 with its Alumni Award, the organization’s highest honor.

Colleagues remember Johnson as a true Renaissance man who enjoyed many social, artistic and cultural pursuits. 

“Ernie was an accomplished pianist and organist, and I recall fondly his enlightening comments about Bach’s organ music,” Debenedetti recalled.

In addition to playing piano and organ, Johnson was a ruling elder of the Presbyterian Church and a charter member of the adult choir of Nassau Presbyterian Church. He read widely, painted, practiced calligraphy and built boats. He also maintained strong family connections to the Swedish American community he was born into in northwestern Pennsylvania, and, following his dreams, created a saltwater farm that he affectionately named Tarnavro (tern cove) in Stonington, Maine. 

The husband of the late M. Ruth McMullin Johnson and father of the late David Schaeffer Johnson, he is survived by daughter Carolyn Johnson Walton and son-in-law Erick Walton, of Freeport, Maine; son Arthur Johnson and daughter-in-law Deborah of Portland, Maine; daughter Melissa Johnson and son-in-law Elrick Bonner of Georgetown, Texas; and grandchildren Brighid Doherty, Matthew Johnson, Chelsea Johnson, Elrick Bonner and Adrian Bonner.

Memorial gifts may be made in Johnson’s name to Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau St., Princeton, NJ 08542, or to a charity of the donor’s choice.

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