Vol. 60, No. 1 | February 2015

Memorial Notes

Robert E. Johnston, Ph.D.
(Written by: Zuleyma Tang-Martinez, ABS Historian; Photo from Johnston web page)

Robert E. Johnston (Bob), age 72, died on December 20, 2014 in Ithaca, NY, of complications from treatments for lymphoma. Bob was a long-term member of the ABS.  He was born in Philadelphia, PA on April 16, 1942, and received his Ph.D. at Rockefeller University under the mentorship of Carl Pfaffmann. He joined the faculty in the Psychology Department at Cornell University in 1970 and remained there for his entire professional career.

Bob’s main area of research was olfactory communication in mammals. However, within this area, his interests were extremely broad. The scope of his research included social recognition (individual, kin, species and sexual recognition), memory and cognition, the neuro and hormonal substrates of olfactory behavior, central nervous system mechanisms of social recognition and memory, sexual behavior, and the functions of scent marking. Additionally, Bob was recognized worldwide as the leading expert on the vomeronasal system of mammals; his work elucidated the different functions and neural pathways of the main (olfactory bulb) versus accessory (vomeronasal organ) olfactory systems. He was a strong advocate of integrative, comparative, and evolutionary approaches, and worked both in the laboratory and field.  

Although best known for his research on golden hamsters, Bob, along with his students and postdoctoral fellows also worked with Djungarian hamsters, meadow voles, and Belding’s ground squirrels. At one point, he even momentarily digressed to studying birds - cooperative breeding in White-throated Magpie jays, a Central American corvidae. His passion for knowing how animals behave under natural conditions led him to conduct behavioral studies on golden hamsters in Turkey and then compare differences in behaviors observed of in the field and in the laboratory. Misty McPhee, a former postdoc, recalls: “We were walking in the field in Turkey and he had his head down, completely focused and absorbed in what was underfoot. He reminded me of a 19th century natural scientist - totally enraptured in the wonder of all that was around him”. He also conducted field observations in Dagestan, Australia, Africa, China and South America. After his death, a note found in his office read: “Retirement plans: find a new species and study it in the field.”
Bob was a prolific scholar. He co-edited one book, Advances in Chemical Signals in Vertebrates (1999), and published more than 135 papers and book chapters. However, because Bob was never one to keep track of his papers – or document them – it has been difficult to establish the exact number! What is not in doubt is that his research influenced generations of students and stimulated additional research around the world.

Bob was much loved by students and colleagues. His unassuming and generous personality made him new friends everywhere he went.  Former students remember him as “the epitome of a kind and gentle human being”. He also played a key role in the Psychology Department at Cornell. His colleague, Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, reminisces: “Bob was instrumental in creating and maintaining the animal behavior program at Cornell. He was a highly valued colleague whose love of natural history was ever apparent. He was unfailingly kind to colleagues and students.”

There was one side of Bob that was not known by many of his ABS colleagues. In addition to being a distinguished scientist, he also was a talented artist, excelling in photography, wood sculpture, and oil painting. He also was an athlete (squash, skiing, ice skating), and an accomplished dancer. Bob’s presence at ABS meetings will be greatly missed. He leaves behind his wife and favorite dance  partner, Joan, two sons, other family members, and many students and friends. 



ABS Newsletter

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Animal Behaviour

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