He Died as He Lived: David A. Johnston

To summarize the importance of Dr. David A. Johnston and his work on Mount St. Helens in an 1000-word blog article is a nigh impossible task given the impact he had on volcanology and the infamous volcano he studied. I always wanted to write about him ever since I wrote my first HDaHL article featuring Karl Patterson Shmidt but I struggled to do so considering this was a man whose legacy saved lives.

Let me back up, Johnston was a USGS volcanologist who had a personal history with volcanoes both active (Augustine Volcano in Alaska) and extinct (volcanoes in Michigan). His insightful knowledge in volcanology got him hired to study Mount St. Helens in March 1980.

Mount St. Helens is a composite volcano with a history of periodic eruptions. After its last few eruptions in the mid-1800s, Mount St. Helens became active again in March 27th, 1980 when steam erupted from it after a 4.2 magnitude earthquake struck it in March 20th. The volcano’s continuous activity prompted a response from the state government to close off many areas that were proximally located to the volcano.

Dr. Johnston continuously monitored the volcano for the next two months. Sometimes, he became so involved with his work that he would climb into the volcano’s active crater to perform experiments on it. Understandably, Johnston was terrified but he knew he had to risk the tests in order to learn more about volcanoes and how much of a threat Mount St. Helens was.

On May 17th, Johnston replaced his student, Harry Glicken, at the Coldwater II outpost, located five miles north of Mount St. Helens. He thought this outpost would be safe from an eruption but unfortunately, that was not true. On the morning of May 18th, Mount St. Helens erupted and its signature lateral blast destroyed everything north of the volcano, taking Dr. Johnston’s life in the process. Before his death, he was able to contact his USGS colleagues in Vancouver and was able to utter his famous last words

“Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

before his radio was cut out. His words were that of excitement and not dread and were the response to two months of anticipation to the now awaken giant. Fifty-seven people, including Johnston’s life, ended that day. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands of deaths were prevented on May 18th, due to Johnston and other scientists’ insistence in keeping the area around the volcano closed from the public.

Johnston’s work on volcanism, especially on Mount St. Helens, should not go unnoticed and there are plenty of webpages around the internet that highlight his accomplishments. Instead of talking about his accomplishments, I want to focus instead on how people remember him and the differences between him and Karl Patterson Shmidt.

Johnston is thankfully recognized on his volcanic work ranging from scholarships, to documentaries, to having the Johnston Ridge Observatory at Mount St. Helens National Monument named after him. One documentary, the Fire Below Us, however, barely spoke about him having instead inserted a random interview he gave to the press along with his famous last words. “St. Helens,” a movie that premiered in 1981, had him as a primary character (although he is called David Jackson) though his portrayal in that film, from what I gathered, is very poor, painting him as a rebel and not as a cautious scientist.

Now, why is David Johnston more revered than Karl Patterson Shmidt? Both are scientists who died doing the things they love and both provided life-saving information to their respective fields. Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that Johnston’s continual persistence in keeping the vicinity closed around Mount St. Helens is the stuff history loves to tell. We love those stories of the one man who was right, trying desperately to save the people around him even when others think him wrong (similar to Jaws now that I think about it…). Johnston’s actions against the grain is a triumphant victory.

Less romantically speaking, Johnston was going toe to toe with force of nature that he knew could kill him at any moment. I can imagine only a few people who would be willing to go out to an active volcano to actively perform observations and experiments on it. Johnston once quoted that Mount St. Helens was a “dynamite keg with the fuse lit.” With that kind of analogy, you have to hand it to the guy for continuing his studies even when death was literally right below him.

Even though Johnston thought his outpost was safe, he was still killed in the blast. This is almost similar to Schmidt’s reaction to the baby boomslang snake biting him at the tip of his thumb. Schmidt thought the snake was harmless and the bite won’t kill him. Yet Johnston’s outpost was based on careful predictions on the volcano’s eruption path. If Johnston was willing to not only have himself and his student stake out this area for observation, you can be sure he was confident in his predictions. Schmidt, on the other hand, did not fully grasp the dangers of the snakebite even when his health was failing him. As such, Johnston, unlike Schmidt, knew he was in danger and was willing to face it every day.

Finally, Johnston saved lives. Hundreds or thousands of lives were saved on May 18th thanks to his persistence along with other scientists. Though Schmidt gave us crucial information on the boomslang bite, determining how many lives he saved is quite hard to gauge. What’s more, boomslang bites symptoms would have been revealed to us sooner or later if Schmidt wasn’t as unlucky as he was that day. Johnston saved lives in one geologic instant. And that instant was all that mattered.

I highly encourage you to look more into Johnston’s life as he was a fascinating man with much to contribute in volcanology. Any webpage talking about him will do but you should also visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory. I’ve been to it before and man, it’s fantastic, definitely one of the best visitor centers I have been to (and the monument is quite beautiful as well).


4 thoughts on “He Died as He Lived: David A. Johnston

  1. D. Timmons

    I’m pretty sure that I am the last person who personally spoke to David Johnston as he left the Vancouver Volcano Watch Center where I had been stationed for the months prior to the May 18th eruption. Im a geologist who worked for Foundation Sciences, Inc. We had been hired to monitor the mountain and assess the potential volcanic hazard for the Trojan Nuclear Plant.

    It’s amazing how foolish actions can be blown out of proportion and transformed into legends of heroism. The “bulge” on the north side of the mountain was well-monitored and was nearing the point of failure. Everybody (not just David) knew it was going to blow at any time. I told David that he was foolish to go to the mountain on the evening of the 17th. He just shrugged his shoulders and smirked. Then he left. We know the rest.

    Out of boredom, while working at the Vancouver Watch Center at night and prior to the main eruption, I started graphing the correlation between seismic events from the PSU seismometer and steam blasts reported by the continual aerial observations. Johnston heard about it, came to my office, snatched the graph off of my desk and accused me of stealing his data. After stomping back to his office, he realized that I had not stolen anything out of his locked office. No apology, no regret. I wrote a small one-page note that I wanted to publish in Oregon Geology reporting the results. He intervened and blocked the publication. This was done purely out of petty jealousy and the race to publish first. I guess in this case, there was no freedom of the press. The personality that I personally observed over a period of months has little to do with all the stuff reported by people who never met him or by people who have a vested interest to lionize his memory.

    A small does of reality on this 36th anniversary of the May 18th eruption.

  2. Nerd Nation

    The D.Timmons comment makes no sense to those who knew David and were at MSH in 1980. The comment basically rakes a person over the coals who is no longer here to defend himself.

  3. Melanie Holmes

    One of the main scientists at St. Helens in 1980 has never heard of D. Timmons, nor the company mentioned in the above comment. So to be sure, D. Simmons was NOT the last person to “personally” speak to David as he left the makeshift office of the USGS (which Simmons refers to as the “Volcano Watch Center”…that descriptor doesn’t appear anywhere in all the writings of the most-studied volcano in history, so why would D.Timmons use an inaccurate name?). I am wondering why a post meant as a tribute to David Johnston would include such a petty (and clearly untrue) comment.


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