University's First Leader Frank Johnson Dies at 91

Scientist Was Acting President When Legislature Created UT Dallas in 1969

Sept. 18, 2009

Dr. Francis “Frank” Johnson’s career followed the same trajectory as the American space program, beginning with his early rocket research after World War II to seeing his experiments fly on three Apollo moon missions.

Frank Johnson in the 1960s

Above: Frank Johnson's early work included testing German V2 rockets seized by the Allies.

Below: An audio interview of Johnson recorded earlier this year is available online.

Frank Johnson being interviewed in 2009

Besides his contributions to atmospheric physics, Johnson will be remembered for his service as the first acting president of The University of Texas at Dallas.

He died Thursday at age 91.

Dr. Lloyd Berkner, the president of the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, lured Johnson to Dallas to join a small group of prominent young scientists at the center.

Texas Instruments founders J. Erik Jonsson, Cecil Green and Eugene McDermott created the center in response to a dearth of training and research opportunities for the scientific talent in the region. Johnson arrived from California to head the Earth and Planetary Sciences Laboratory in 1962, a pivotal time for space science. Russia and the U.S. were racing to see which nation could send more satellites and rockets into space, and which would be the first to land a man on the moon.

Johnson brought impeccable credentials as the manager of space physics for Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. Before that, while at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., he designed instruments for testing German-made V2 rockets, the world’s first ballistic missiles. Hundreds of these missiles had been seized by Allied forces at the end of WW II and given to U.S. scientists to study the technology.

An expert on the Earth’s upper atmosphere, Johnson was asked by NASA to design experiments that could detect the existence of lunar atmosphere in preparation for the first manned space flight in 1969. He devised a 3-pound, cold cathode ionization gauge, or surface instrument, that tested for atmospheric pressure on the moon. His invention flew on Apollo flights 12, 14 and 15 as part of the instrument package that the astronauts deployed on the lunar surface.

When the Texas Legislature created the University in 1969, Harry Ransom, chancellor of the UT System, appointed Johnson acting president. He served until July 1971, when Bryce Jordan assumed the presidency. Looking back 40 years later, Johnson said that without space science and the NASA funds that followed, the University may never have come about. The fledging center’s other research areas – geosciences and molecular biology – depended more on private philanthropy than government grants.

“That’s one of the things that led to the realization that the only way to preserve the institution was to bring in state support,” Johnson said in an interview with the University’s Office of Communications in the summer of 2009.

After serving as acting president of UT Dallas, he continued to teach in his field and held a dual position at Southern Methodist University, where he taught space science in the engineering school. He published nearly 100 articles, book chapters, and other publications during his long career and sat on several advisory boards with organizations such as NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Science Foundation. From 1976 to 1979 he served as the Executive Dean of Graduate Education at the University and in 1974 he was named a Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Honors Professor of Natural Science. From 1979 to 1983, he took a leave of absence from the University to work for the NSF as the Assistant Director for Atmospheric, Earth and Ocean Sciences. He retired from the University in 1989.

Johnson was born July 20, 1918, in Omak, Wash., and raised on a wheat farm in Alberta, Canada.  He graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Alberta in 1940.  He earned his master’s degree in meteorology from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1942.  During WWII he served in the U.S. Air Force as a weather operator and distinguished himself with a Bronze Star Medal.  According to his widow Maurine, Johnson was awarded the medal for providing the accurate forecast that permitted safe travel for President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to meet Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference in Crimea, where the three chief Allied commanders discussed the fate of Eastern European countries after the war.

Johnson earned a Ph.D. in meteorology from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1958.

A visitation has been scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22, at Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home, 7405 W. Northwest Highway, in Dallas. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23, at the Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home Chapel, with graveside services to follow at 1:30 p.m. at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, 2000 Mountain Creek Parkway in Dallas.

Media contact: Brandon V. Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]

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Frank Johnson

Frank Johnson served on advisory boards for such organizations as NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Science Foundation.

A cold cathode gauge

Johnson devised an instrument that tested for atmospheric pressure on the moon. His invention flew on Apollo flights 12, 14 and 15.

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September 19, 2019