One of the leading twentieth-century scientists in synthetic organic chemistry, William Summer Johnson was widely recognized for advancing steroid chemistry. The Johnson Symposium, held at Stanford in his honor, has drawn eminent organic chemists from around the world annually since its establishment in 1986. Professor Johnson was also an avid jazz musician, and an effective and well-liked team builder. As Chemistry Department executive head from 1960 to 1969, he led broad improvements in chemistry facilities and hiring that are credited with elevating the department’s ranking from 15th to 5th in the nation.
Born in New Rochelle, NY in 1913, Professor Johnson described first becoming “hooked” on organic chemistry during his undergraduate studies at Amherst College (AB magna cum laude 1936). He went on to graduate study with organic chemist Louis Fieser at Harvard University (AM, PhD 1940). He joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as instructor in 1940, moving rapidly to assistant professor in 1942, associate professor in 1944 and full professor in 1946. In 1960 he was recruited to Stanford University as full professor and executive head of the Department of Chemistry, to lead improvements in department laboratories and equipment, as well as recruitment of many highly accomplished chemists to the faculty. He stepped down as executive head in 1969 to focus on research and teaching. He was named Jackson-Wood Professors in Chemistry in 1975.