A Pioneer of Atmospheric Chemistry

By Mary Loftus

Historic photo

Harold “Hal” Johnston

Courtesy the Johnston family

Harold “Hal” Johnston 41C, a University of California Berkeley professor emeritus of chemistry, was just seventeen when he came to Emory, fresh from Woodstock, Georgia.

“His original plan was to be a journalist, and he wrote for the campus humor magazine,” says his eldest daughter, Shirley Johnston, who lives in Windsor, California. “But then he reconsidered, believing that chemistry would be more useful in a world going toward war.”

Johnston, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Emory and went on to the California Institute of Technology for a doctorate in chemistry in 1948, died at his home in Kensington, California, on October 20, 2012. He was ninety-two.

He worked at the chemistry departments at Stanford and Caltech before becoming a professor of chemistry at Berkeley in 1957, where he served as dean of the College of Chemistry from 1966 to 1977. He retired in 1991.

Through a bequest, he established the Harold T. and Mary E. Johnston English Endowment at Emory, which annually supports two fellowships for travel and research for English majors in the college (Johnston’s minor at Emory).

Johnston was a pioneer in stratospheric chemistry, and published an article in Science magazine in 1971 showing that supersonic passenger aircraft emissions were contributing to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer—not a popular notion at the time.

“He was extremely determined,” says Shirley Johnston. “If something was right, he would stick to it despite all kinds of opposition. It was his most admirable trait.”

For his work in atmospheric chemistry, Johnston received the National Medal of Science in 1997, the Tyler World Prize for Environmental Achievement, and the National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemistry in the Service to Society.

“I don’t remember talking about chemistry as much around the dinner table as politics and philosophy, but science was always in the air,” says Johnston—so much so that her son, Bryce, just completed his senior project in high school by creating a video game about chemistry and heat of reactions. “We all just absorbed it from him.”

Johnston is survived by his wife, Mary Ella Johnston, their four children, Shirley Johnston, Linda Bannister, David Johnston, and Barbara Schubert, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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