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 Myrtle Elizabeth Johnson  (1881 - )

About: Myrtle Elizabeth Johnson


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Lived/Active: California/Wisconsin      Known for: marine biology, science illustration, photography

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
In 2008, Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek wrote a book about Myrtle Elizabeth Johnson.  The title is Myrtle Elizabeth Johnson, Forgotten Marine Biologist.  In the dedication he wrote: Miss Myrtle Johnson, one of my students, but for whose dissections and sketches, no such extensive examination ...of the species would have been practicable."

Following is text by van de Hoek excerpted from the opening section of the book:

Here we are in 2008, now already 8 years into the new Milllenium of the 21st Century, and still no woman has become president of the United States There was a long struggle for women to get the right to vote followed by a struggle for women to become professors and scientists in universities. One such woman to break these early barriers to professorship in a univeristy with a PhD was Myrtle Elizabeth Johnson. Her book on the marine life of the seashores of the Pacific Coast is also a monumental breakthrough in equality for women considering that it was written 81 years ago in 1927, fully 12 years before Ed Ricketts' book, Between Pacific Tides, in 1939.

Seashore Animals of the Pacific Coast by M. E. Johnson ..., published in 1927, was considered the bible of the seashore by naturalists and teachers for many years.

Myrtle Elizabeth Johnson studied marine biology, ascidians, salps, ecology, and science during the early part of the 20th Century from 1899 to 1909. She completed a Masters Degree and a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley.

Within a decade of completion of her PhD, Myrtle became a professor at San Diego State Teachers College, which later became San Diego State University. As the first and only woman scientist for several decades at this univeristy, she created the pathway for future women scientists including Joy Zedler.

While at San Diego as a new professor, she began work on a book about the marine biology of seashore animals of the California coast. The book has become a classic and predates Edward Ricketts and his book, Between Pacific Tides by 12 years.

She was honored with many awards for teaching during her career. She also wrote two books on seashells of California that were designed to reach out to the public, both adults and children, about the wonderful life at the seashore.

Myrtle Elizabeth Johnson, as well as Augusta Foote Arnold, and another woman marine biologist of California, Ruth Agnes Forsyth, also from this same time period of the early 20th Century, have been ignored and almost erased from our history, except that the Ballona Institute, with its focus of attention on women scientists, ecoliteracy, ecofeminism, continues to bring attention to this important issue. These three women scientists who studied marine biology and natural history of the California littoral region, were not allowed to vote as women during the early part of their education and career at the University of California, and they did not obtain the right to vote until later in the 20th Century, after they became teachers. And in the case of Augusta Foote Arnold, she died before getting the right to vote in elections.

Myrtle's graduate advisor at the University of California was William Emerson Ritter. He supported and endorsed women in undergraduate and graduate education. William Emerson Ritter was a distinguished marine scientist and director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in its early years. He was also a world expert on ascidians who published many studies on ascidians of the Pacific Coast.

Finally, a cursory search through her papers and archives, curated at the university, I discovered that Myrtle Johnson was a member of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. She traveled throughout the west, including such places as Yosemite National Park.



In an email dated December 17, 2012, to Lonnie Dunbier, AskART, Robert van de Hoek wrote: "I feel certain that Myrtle Johnson took photographs, but I'm not certain she did painting or illustrations later in life?  However, I do believe that she did many illustrations of scientific nature of animals for her graduate studies at Berkeley.  Her advisor promoted women as scientists and these women had talent and focus to detail in doing scientific illustration of animals.  So I think we can find some scientific illustrations that Myrtle Johnson would have created in her youthful university days!  There is an archive of her work at the library of San Diego State University, where she was a professor for many years."

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Myrtle Johnson completed a PhD at Berkeley and then became a distinguished professor of biology at San Diego State College. She wrote the first dedicated guide to seashore life of the Pacific Coast in the 1920s, within a decade of completing her PhD.

Dr. William Emerson Ritter, one of her professors, named an asicidan in her honor in 1909 for her excellent detailed scientific illustration of a particular ascidian that he was studying.

Johnson was born in East Troy, Wisconsin.  Her father, Theodore Johnson, took a medical degree at Northwestern University, and her mother, Marian Gray Johnson, was a normal school teacher.  They were both interested in botanics and had a collection of carefully-mounted and scientifically labeled wild flowers. They were so well preserved that they were added to the herbarium of the Botany Department of the San Diego State College.

In 1887, because of the father's health, the family, which included Myrtle's sister and brother, moved to National City, a small town south of San Diego.  There, in a milder climate, Dr. Theodore Johnson practiced medicine until he was 80 years old.

Myrtle recalled that in the 9th Grade, she was assigned study of Gray's Botany, and also recalled that a strong stimulus to her future career were the family field trips of exploring the local environs.

Wiley+Online+Library+Science Education, March, 1959

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