Memorial Resolution of the Faculty the University of Wisconsin on the Death of Emeritus Professor Marvin J. Johnson 

(Faculty Document 530; 12 September 1983)

Marvin Joyce Johnson, Emeritus Professor Biochemistry, died October 1, 1982 at the age of 75. He was born November 25, 1906 in McIntosh, Minnesota, but he spent most of his early years in Superior, Wisconsin. His B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees were awarded by the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and in his graduate work he was associated with W.H. Peterson and E.B. Fred. M.J. Johnson was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship and spent the 1932-33 year in the laboratory of Professor Waldschmidt-Leitz in Prague, Czechoslovakia studying enzymology. There he met Gisela Hildegard Mueller and they were married in 1934. Hilde worked with Marv in his laboratory in Agricultural Hall and in Biochemistry for a number of years and co-authored their research on bacterial peptidases. Hilde, two children and five grandchildren survive Marvin Johnson. Johnson became an assistant professor in 1940, and was Professor of Biochemistry from 1946 until be became Emeritus Professor in 1972.

Johnson was a marvelous teacher and a most versatile researcher. His curiosity knew no bounds, and he had a mind that devoured basic information and then assembled it into logical combinations. He saved time by reasoning from basic facts rather than going to the literature for the opinion of someone else. Johnson dramatized points so that students did not forget them. His lectures were based on the concept that he was there to transmit information understandably rather than being there to demonstrate his own erudition. He taught courses in the biochemistry of microorganisms, enzymology (taught with C.A. Elvehjem and later with Henry Lardy) and laboratories in fermentation biochemistry and in chromatography. Thermodynamics was a subject that professors and students alike found difficult. Johnson was invited to write a chapter on this subject for the second edition of "The Enzymes," and he treated thermodynamics in such a way t a novice could understand and enjoy it; that chapter remains a classic reference many years later.

Many graduates of the Wisconsin biochemistry department will testify that Marv's lab courses were the greatest they ever took. His laboratory experiments emphasized clarity and simplicity in the presentation of principles. He felt that a complex push-button, microprocessor-controlled instrument was more likely to obfuscate than to illuminate an idea. Marv designed many ingenious gadgets, and one found them scattered in laboratories throughout the campus. All commercial autoclavable oxygen electrodes seem to be copies of his design. In developing an electronic gadget Marv considered it completely improper to consult a wiring diagram in the literature; instead he designed logically from "scratch" to produce the simplest unit that would do the job.

After retiring early because of heart trouble, Marv and Hilde spent their summers at Plummer Lake in Vilas County and their winters in Mazatlan, Mexico. On the beaches, he tried out new kite designs. Again the game was to develop them from "scratch" unfettered by earlier designs. Johnson's dowel-framed, light plastic-covered kites would fly virtually vertically overhead in a light breeze. His self-designed sundial at Plummer Lake checked electronic watches to the minute with aid of his charts.

M.J. Johnson's mind worked so rapidly and unceasingly and he was so penetrating in his quizzing, that he frightened some people. His examination questions exhibited ingenious ways to seek whether a student knew the facts, and more important knew how to reason from these facts. Not all students went out of their way to have Marv on their exams, but everyone respected him and recognized that he always was fair even though he was demanding.

M.J. Johnson's honest and integrity were absolute. He probably was better informed on the penicillin fermentation than any of his contemporaries, and he certainly had more ideas on how to solve problems in industry than anyone else. As a result, Marv was in great demand as a consultant in the fermentation industry. His students have been in positions of importance in virtually every penicillin plant in the country, and they all recognize that if there was a problem Marv probably could develop a solution. Johnson felt that the University of Wisconsin was paying him a living wage, hence it was somehow improper for him to use consulting fees himself. So he always deposited his fees with the University of Wisconsin Foundation where they could be tapped for useful items for the department. At one time it was impossible to buy an electric typewriter with university funds, so the Johnson funds bought the first one in the Biochemistry Department. Copying machines were not considered important enough to warrant a purchase order, so he bought the department's first Ozalid copier. This was not to say that he condoned the indiscriminate copying rampant currently; he was quoted as saying "Xerox is a mechanism for asexual reproduction of sterile material."

Marv Johnson was a very fine scientist. His work on the peptidases of micro-organisms was outstanding. He designed a number of elegant and simple analytical method that made his papers among the most quoted of their day. His 1941 paper in the journal Science clarified the role of aerobic phosphorylation in the Pasteur effect. Perhaps his outstanding contribution was his aid in establishing how penicillin was produced by molds. This was a group war effort on campus in collaboration with many other universities and industrial laboratories off campus, but Marv certainly was one the most important contributors. The program was successful and took penicillin production from one to well above 1,000 Oxford units per ml and dropped its price from $20/100,000 units to 3¢/100,000 units in a relatively short time. Johnson published about 150 papers and trained about 70 students who received advanced degrees.

Johnson's work won recognition among microbiologists, and the American Chemical Society section on Microbial Chemistry awarded Marv its Distinguished Service Award in 1968, and in 1979 established the annual Marvin J. Johnson Award for outstanding and original work in the field of microbial and biochemical technology. The University has established a M.J. Johnson professorship in the Biochemistry Department. From 1962 to 1966 he twice served as chairman and was president of the section on Economic and Applied Microbiology of the International Association of Microbiological Societies. However, Marv Johnson simply was not interested in becoming a scientific hero. He had no lust for power or desire to win a Nobel prize or become an administrator. He spent little time in Washington or on the lecture circuit. If anyone ever "hid his light under a bushel" it was Marv Johnson. He gave his advice freely and wanted no recognition for it. There still were too many exciting new ideas to think of and develop to be encumbered by some idea he already had initiated and someone else was exploiting. He was a curious kid at heart, and wanted to remain as unfettered as this world permits.

Marv Johnson had great facility with the English language. Occasionally he would be inspired to compose a poem, and he did this with ease. Unfortunately the spirit didn't move him very often, but the Yellow Cardinal published anonymously in Bacteriology for the annual picnic, and Christmas in the Biochemistry office furnished inspiration. The Memorial Committee likes the poem dedicated to Anne Terrio, long-time departmental administrative assistant.

Anne must be older than she appears
They say she's been here forty years
A time too short, as she knows well
To teach professors how to spell.

When Ann arrived she played it smart,
Avoiding labor's fetters;
She typed for old Professor Hart
Who never answered letters.

Alas! Each year our science
Grows ever more verbose
Until poor Anne's clients
May drown in cellulose.

She does our manuscripts in turn.
(This sometimes keeps us waiting)
To keep them straight she had to learn
Techniques of carbon dating.

The paper tide cannot be stemmed;
Let's return to the state medieval,
Let written papers be condemned,
Stamp out information retrieval!

We have other gems in the file, but to keep it short we will give only one other poem by Marv:

Once upon a time I blamed on fate
The fact that I am bland and placid
But now I put the onus on
Deoxyribonucleic acid.

Marv was not bland and placid, and we wish that many more inherited his type of deoxyribonucleic acid.

Memorial Committee:

  • Thomas D. Brock
  • Robert H. Burris, Chairman
  • W. Wallace Cleland
  • William G. Hoekstra
  • Henry A. Lardy
  • David L. Nelson
  • Joe B. Wilson

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