Professor Dame Louise Johnson

26 September 1940 - 25 September 2012

Friends and colleagues of Professor Dame Louise Johnson will be very saddened to learn that she passed away a day before her 72nd birthday on 25th September 2012. She suffered a serious and very incapacitating heart attack with complications in August 2011.

Any messages of condolence can be addressed to 213 Huntingdon Road, Cambridge, CB3 0DL. If you would like to, please make a donation to any of the charities Louise supported.
[Dame Louise Johnson][Louise Johnson at the opening of the Charles Barkla Laboratory]

Professor Dame Louise Johnson

A personal perspective from a former student

As a crystallography community, we mourn collectively the passing of one of our pioneers and heroes: Professor Dame Louise Johnson.

Louise touched many lives. And her impact on our field of science is immeasurable. She helped lead the way in crystallography and in synchrotron life science. She also trained a generation of crystallographers in Oxford who themselves now train future leaders across all four corners of the world. That is an amazing legacy.

Louise was certainly a significant influence in my life. Indeed, I count myself incredibly fortunate to have been supervised by her as a DPhil student in Oxford. I remember arriving in September 1986, fresh from the suburbs of Melbourne, a raw, naive, Aussie girl, with not much clue about anything. By contrast, Louise epitomized elegance, grace and understated British-ness. She was a brilliant scientist, a wonderful person and an amazing role model. She exhibited extraordinary patience at my ignorance of all things crystallographic, and most things protein: for example, she took the time to explain in great detail how to remember the one-letter codes for amino acids, after I threw my hands up in despair with D for Asp and Q for Gln.

Most importantly, and for the first time in my life, Louise demonstrated to me by example that being a woman and having a successful career in science were not mutually exclusive.

Looking back, I find an uncanny harmony in the fact that Louise trained me - an Australian - in crystallography, while her crystallography PhD supervisor had been Lawrence Bragg, an Australian. Actually, this year marks the centenary of Bragg’s Law, which was first presented to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in November 1912. Australian celebrations to honour this momentous occasion include a Bragg symposium to be held in December 2012 in Lawrence Bragg’s home-town of Adelaide. Just 18 months ago, Louise expressed how she was “honoured to receive” and “delighted to accept” an invitation to speak at the symposium about her “reflections of Bragg”. Sadly that will no longer happen.

Although I will not have the opportunity to meet Louise in Adelaide later this year, I have memories to cherish from several recent catch-ups. In 2007, David Barford, Ravi Acharya, Jane Endicott and Janos Hajdu arranged an unforgettable Symposium at Oxford in Louise’s honour ( The program was awesome, a veritable Who’s Who of crystallography, and the feeling was one of a reunion of old friends, reinforcing Louise’s impact and reach in this field. She was - characteristically - embarrassed by all the attention and plaudits.

Fittingly, the next time we met was at the 2008 International Union of Crystallography Congress in Osaka. Louise gave two scientific presentations and also spoke at a session on “The Future of Female Crystallographers”. Ordinarily intensely private, she took the opportunity to reflect on her life as a female protein crystallographer from the early days to the present time. I remember vividly her wistful account of watching other girls on their way to work in London, envying them their steady 9-to-5 jobs in Marks and Sparks, while she, a female PhD physics student in the 1960s, rode on the bus to the Royal Institution. She also talked about her children Umar and Sayyeda, how important they were in her life, and how proud she was of them and of her grandchildren.

More recently, we met several times in late 2010 at the Diamond Synchrotron in Harwell, where I spent 4 months on sabbatical in So Iwata’s membrane protein laboratory. Louise invited me to lunch soon after I arrived and we drove out to a nearby pub. Aside from science and synchrotrons, we also discussed life that day. Louise explained that she was turning 70 later that month, and “didn’t that sound old?”, but she also said how much she was looking forward to the celebration with her family and to spending more time with her children and grandchildren.

My favourite amateur philosopher Tom Alber, himself facing a debilitating disease with enormous courage, told me once that part of saying goodbye at a time like this is to come to terms with what Louise taught us about life; to get some clarity about her; and to prepare to do without direct reminders from Louise herself. So I’d like to share with you what I learned by working with Louise, specifically what I learned about her approach to life that brought her such great success as a person and a scientist:

Be gentle.
Be kind.
Be generous.
Be patient.
Be thankful.
Be brave.
Be bold.
Be brilliant.
[Louise Johnson research group]
Louise Johnson’s group in 1989. Louise is flanked by David Barford and Jenny Martin.
Jenny Martin
University of Queensland, Australia

Message from the IUCr Editor in Chief

Louise Johnson will be very fondly remembered by the IUCr’s community for her generosity, thoughtfulness and care she took in nurturing so many careers while opening new areas of research. I was fortunate enough to have her as a constant support, receive words of wisdom and share some of the memorable times, e.g. organising a major international conference or working on ‘Science for peace’.

My last visit to her on 14th July 2012 will remain as cherished as her opening of the Barkla Laboratory of Biophysics with Sir Tom Blundell on 21st July 2011 ( Despite being in the wheelchair on my last visit and in significant pain, her kindness, determination and generosity were clearly there in abundance. We at the IUCr are indebted to her for publishing some of her research in the IUCr Journals, starting in 1966. A selection of her papers in IUCr journals is given below:

[SESAME site]
Louise Johnson flanked by Samar Hasnain and Joel Sussman at SESAME site, Jordan in 2005.
  1. L. N. Johnson (1966) The crystal structure of N-acetyl-α-D-glycosamine. Acta Cryst. 21, 885-891.
  2. K. S. Wilson, E. A. Stura, D. L. Wild, R. J. Todd, D. I. Stuart, Y. S. Babu, J. A. Jenkins, T. S. Standing, L. N. Johnson, R. Fourme, R. Kahn, A. Gadet, K. S. Bartels & H. D. Bartunik (1983). Macromolecular crystallography with synchrotron radiation. II. Results. J. Appl. Cryst. 16, 28-41.
  3. K. A. Watson, E. P. Mitchell, L. N. Johnson, G. Cruciani, J. C. Son, C. J. F. Bichard, G. W. J. Fleet, N. G. Oikonomakos, M. Kontou & S. E. Zographos (1995). Glucose analogue inhibitors of glycogen phosphorylase: from crystallographic analysis to drug prediction using GRID force-field and GOLPE variable selection. Acta Cryst. D51, 458-472.
  4. L. N. Johnson & T. L. Blundell (1999). Introductory overview. J. Synchrotron Rad. 6, 813-815.
  5. M. Ghosh, I. A. T. M. Meerts, A. Cook, A. Bergman, A. Brouwer & L. N. Johnson (2000). Structure of human transthyretin complexed with bromophenols: a new mode of binding. Acta Cryst. D56, 1085-1095.

Obituaries will appear in the next issues of Acta Cryst. D, Acta Cryst. F and the Journal of Synchrotron Radiation written by Sir Tom Blundell, Professor Keith Wilson and Professor David Stuart.

Samar Hasnain