Johnson, Douglas Wilson

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Johnson, Douglas Wilson

(b. Parkersburg, West Virginia, 30 November 1878; d. sebring, Florida, 24 February 1944)


Johnson’s father, afarmer-turned- lawyer, died when the boy was twelve, leaving his upbringing to his mother, an intellectual who was a leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and an advocate of women’s suffrage. It was from this background that Johnson developed the sharp legalistic mind, love of order, self- discipline, and emotional austerity which characterized both his dealings with his colleagues and his scholarship.

Johnson entered Denison University at the age of eighteen. He had never been robust and, fearing tuberculosis, transferred to the University of New Mexico, where he assisted its president, Clarence Luther Herrick, himself late of Denison University, in his summer geological fieldwork. Herrick’s humane scientific influence led Johnson to take up geology; he subsequently pursued graduate work at Columbia University, where he received his doctorate in 1903, the year in which he married Alice Adkins, daughter of a Baptist preacher. The deep love between these two sustained them through thirty- five years of marriage. During most of this time Alice was totally blind, and all five of their children died within a few hours of birth as did a foster child within a few days. Triumphing over her affliction, Alice was his companion on worldwide travels and Johnson never recovered from her death in 1938.

Taking up an instructorship in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johnson continued his studies in physical geography at Harvard, where he came under the influence of W. M. Davis, whose upbringing and intellect were much like his own. Inspired by Davis’sharpness of reasoning and by the clarity and effectiveness of his written and graphic exposition, Johnson later wrote to him (April 1921); “I have always felt that no one of the teachers with whom it was my fortune to be associated did so much for me in the way of development of correct methods of investigation and exposition as did you.” When, toward the end of his life, Johnson wrote his penetrating but unfinished “Studies in Scientific Method” (1938- 1941), he gave pride of place to the “analytical method of presentation” (also called the “method of multiple working hypotheses”) as exemplified by Davis’ “Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania (1889). Johnson’s last major work, The Origin of the Carolina Bays (1942), employed this analytical method to arrive at the suggestion that the Carolina bays were caused by a combination of submarine artesian spring action, lacustrine solution, and beach processes.

In 1907 Johnson moved to Harvard as assistant professor of geology; two years later he edited an important collection of Davis’ works, Geographical Essays (1909), thereby perpetuating Davis’ earlier writings, on which later generations of geomorphologists were to draw, to the virtual exclusion of Davis’ important later work. Johnson was an unswerving disciple of Davis, disagreeing with him only on the spelling of the word “peneplain” (1916). It is rather ironic that one of his last students was Arthur N. Strahler, who later did much to propagate modern “quantitative geomorphology” to the detriment of the “classical” work of Davis and Johnson. Speaking of his teacher, Strahler wrote: “Even as recently as 1943, Douglas Johnson presented his graduate classes in geomorphology with subject matter faithfully reproducing the principles and details as written by Davis 45 years earlier” (Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 40 [1950], 209- 213). Johnson was, nevertheless, an energetic and meticulous teacher much influenced at Harvard by the mercurial Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. He conducted field trips with almost regimental efficiency and produced a constant stream of Ph.D. ’s beginning with Armin K. Lobeck (1917).

In 1911 Johnson received a grant from the Shaler Memorial Fund to study the whole eastern shoreline of the United States and that of parts of western Europe. He had already published work on beach processes and sea-level changes, topics he pursued until World War II. After moving to Columbia University, first as associate professor in 1912 and then as professor in 1919, he devoted much time to these topics and in 1919 published his important book Shore Processes and Shoreline Development, notable for the completeness of its detailed elaboration of the idea of particularly, for its detailed elaboration of the idea of F. P. Gulliver, Davis’ only Ph.D. student, that the cyclic concept should be applied to shoreline evolution and classification. This work was followed by a regional application of these principles in The New England-Acadian Shoreline (1925). These marine interests were largely instrumental in the setting up of the National Research Council’s Committee on Shoreline Investigations in 1923 with Johnson as chairman; it concerned itself with studies of mean sea level (on which Johnson published some fourteen papers between 1910 and 1930) and with coastal protection. He developed an interest in the formation and correlation of marine terraces: his “Principles of Marine Level Correlation” (1932) was followed by some seven other papers on the study of Pleistocene and Pliocene terraces. He also served as president of the International Geographical Union’s commission on the subject from 1934 to 1938. In 1939 Johnson published Origin of Submarine Canyons, reviewing the large number of hypotheses which had been proposed and tentatively suggesting a working hypothesis that involved the sapping action of submarine artesian spring.

Johnson’s orderly, authoritarian outlook led him to take a profound interest in the Course of world War I, particularly in the way in which military operations were affected by terrain; in this he followed Davis’ interest in the influence of the Appalachian topography on the course of the American Civil War. His anti- German views were reflected in his election as chairman in 1916 of the executive committee of the American Rights League, which sought American entry into the war; and there is little doubt that his influence on the elderly W. M. Davis did much to widen the academic breach which had developed between the latter and Albrecht and Walther Penck.

Johnson’s political and scholarly views were reflected in his many contributions to what was then termed “military geography.” In 1917 he published Topography and Strategy in the War and received a commission as major in the intelligence division of the U. S. Army before proceeding to Europe to study firsthand the influence of landforms on modern warfare. This interest culminated in his Battlefields of the World War (1921). He returned to Columbia University in 1920, and in 1923- 1924 he lectured on American geomorphology at several French universities; he published the substance of his lectures in Paysages et problé mes gé ographjiques de la terre amé ricaine (1927), and in his extensive review of European geography (1929), in which he argued forcefully that geomorphology be viewed as part of geology rather than geography.

It is for his work in geomorphology, fluvial as well as coastal, that Johnson is remembered most. Early in his career he wrote “The Tertiary History of the Tennessee River” and he continued to contribute articles on a wide variety of geomorphic topics virtually until his death. Particularly notable are “Baselevel” (1929), “Geomorphologic Aspects of Rift Valleys” (1931), “Streams and Their Significance” (1932), and several ascribing the origin of pediments primarily to lateral stream corrasion (1931, 1932). In his more advanced years, particularly after Davis’ death in 1934, Johnson occupied the position of America’s most influential geomorphologist, passing critical judgments on his contemporaries.

Johnson chose for his major and most lasting contribution a return to the denudation chronology of the central and northern Appalachians made classic forty years before by Davis’ two brilliant papers, “The Rivers and Valleys of Pennsylvania” and “The Rivers of Northern New Jersey.” Two circumstances permitted him to produce a more streamlined and satisfying theoretical history of Appalachian geomorphology than had Davis. First he was free from the necessity of assuming the existence of Appalachia with an initial east- west drainage, the subsequent reversal of which had to be accounted for. Second, he saw that the situation would be greatly simplified if it could be assumed that the sub- Cretaceous unconformity of the coastal plain (the Fall Zone peneplain) was of different age from the summit peneplain of the Appalachians further west (the Schooley peneplain). Johnson’s Stream Sculpture on the Atlantic Slope (1931) ranks with the work of H. Baulig on the Massif Central and of S. W. Wooldridge and D.L. Linton on Southeast England as one of the masterpieces of denudation chronology. In it, with highly effective writing and use of block diagrams, he picture the development of the complex relief and drainage of the region through a series of rational steps. His masterstroke was to postulate a widespread Cretaceous marine cover over the Fall Zone peneplain which was subsequently upwarped and from which eastward- flowing rivers were superimposed on the underlying structures; there followed a series of discontinuous diastrophic uplifts which were responsible for the successive Schooley, Harrisburg, and Somerville surfaces.

Johnson was president of both the Geological Society of America and the Association of American Geographers; he held six honorary degrees, three of them from French universities; and he received many medals and two decorations, one of which was that of chevalier of the Legion of Honor.


I. Original Works. A comprehensive bibliography of Johnson’s writings is in the obituary by W. H. Bucher in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,24 (1947), 197- 230. The works mentioned in the text include “The Tertiary History of the Tennessee River,” in Journal of Geology, 13 (1905), 194- 231; W. M. Davis. G Geographical Essays (Boston, 1909), of which Johnson was editor; “Beach Cusps,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 21 (1910), 599- 624; “The Supposed Recent Subsidence of the Massachusetts and New Jersey Coasts,” in Science, 32 (1910), 721- 723; “Plains, Planes and Peneplanes,” in Geographical Review,1 (1916), 443- 447; Topography and Strategy in the War (New York, 1917); Shore Processes and Shoreline Development (New York, 1919); Battlefields of the World War: A Study in Military Geography, American Geographical Society Research series, no.3 (New York, 1921); The New England- Acadian Shoreline (New York, 1925); Paysages et problè mes gé ographiques de la terre amé ricaine (Paris, 1927); “The Central Plateau of France,” in Geographical Review, 19 (1929), 662- 667; “The Geographic Prospect,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 19 (1929). 167- 231; “Baselevel”, in Journal of Geology, 37 (1929), 775- 782; “Geomorphologic Aspects of Rift Valleys,” in Comptes rendus. 15th International Geological Congress,II (1931), 354- 373; “Planes of Lateral Corrasion,” in Science, 73 (1931), 174- 177; Stream Sculpture on the Atlantic Slope (New York, 1931); “Streams and Their Significance,” in Journal of Geology, 40 (1932), 480- 497; “Rock Fans of Arid Regions,” in American Journal of Science, 5th ser., 137 (1932), 389- 416; “Rock Planes of Arid Regions,” in Geographical Review, 22 (1932), 656- 665; “The Role of Analysis in Scientific Investigation,” in Science, 77 (1933), 569- 576, also in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 44 (1933), 461- 494;” “Development of Drainage Systems and the Dynamic Cycle,” in Geographical Review,23 (1933), 114- 121; “Available Relief and Texture of Topography: A Discussion Cycle,” in Journal of Geology, 41 (1933), 293- 305; obituary of W. M. Davis, in Science, 79 (1934), 445- 449; “Studies in Scientific Method,” in J ournal of Geomorphology,1 (1938), 64- 66, 147-152; 2 (1939), 366-372; 3 (1940), 59-66, 256- 262, 353- 355; 4 (1941), 145- 149, 328- 332; 5 (1942), 73- 77, 171-173; Origin of Submarine Canyons (New York, (1939); “Memorandum. . . on the Mimeographed Outline of the Proposed Symposium on the Geomorphic Ideas of Davis and Walther Penck,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 30 (1940), 228- 232; “The Function of Meltwater in Cirque Formation,” in Journal of Geomorphology, 4 (1941), 253- 262; and The Origin of the Carolina Bays (New York, 1942).

II. Secondary Literature. On Johnson and his work, see R. J. Chorley, “Diastrophic Background to TwentiethCentury Geomorphological Thought,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 74 (1963), 953- 970; R. J. Chorley, R. P. Beckinsale, and A. J. Dunn, The History of the Study of Landforms: vol. II, The Life and Work of William Morris Davis (1973); A. K. Lobeck, “Douglas Johnson,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 34 (1944), 216- 222; A. N. Strahler, “Davis’ Concepts of Slope Development Viewed in the Light of Recent Quantitative Investigations,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 40 (1950), 209-213; and F. J. Wright and A. Z. Wright, “Memorial to Douglas Johnson,” in Proceedings of the Geological Society of America, Annual Report for 1944 (New York, 1945), pp. 223- 239.

R. J. Chorley

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Johnson, Douglas Wilson

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