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D W Johnson (Image Source: National Academy of Sciences, Vol 24, 1946)

One of my prized possessions are books written by Douglas Wilson Johnson. Who is he? I regard him as one of the fathers of modern geomorphology, especially coastal geomorphology. He was a disciple of the great William Morris Davis of Harvard University of “cycle of erosion” fame. Johnson was long-standing Professor of Physiography at Columbia University in New York. His fame arose in 1919 with the publication of the incredible tome Shore Processes and Shoreline Development (Hafner Publishing, 1919). Hundred years later and I still refer to it.

The publication of this book was quite remarkable. It was prepared during World War 1 which the USA entered in 1917. The preface was written on 3 April 1918 “on board troop ship”. He expected readers to find defects as “the volume goes to press under circumstances which absolutely prevent that careful attention to details which every work of this kind should receive”. Yet he was able to assemble sufficient material in the preceding years to offer readers a text that aimed to enquire “somewhat fully into the fundamental principles of shore processes and shoreline development”.

Before the release of Cuchlaine King’s epic coastal text in late 1959, Johnson’s book was the standard text for coastal students at Sydney University. I was so proud in later years to acquire a personal copy because I must confess now that I hogged the library copy for weeks on end. Johnson  had recognised the existing “overburdened” literature needed a work “which combined with an extended analysis of the forces operating along the shore, offered a full and systematic discussion of the cycle of shoreline development and such further discussion of the modifying effects of changes of level as would enable one to differentiate stable, rising, and subsiding coasts”.

This is not the place to undertake an historic overview of the content of this book. It consists of ten chapters covering coastal processes, shore classification, shore profile development using the cycle model (youth, mature, old age), and two final chapters, one on shore/beach ridges and one on “minor shore forms” such as cusps. Shorelines of what was termed Emergence and Submergence were discussed without reference to what we now know about processes of relative sea level change. This led to later criticism by those such as Professor Richard Russell (I got full blast on this as a postgraduate at LSU in the 1960s). Nevertheless, Johnson’s book is full of exciting observations and illustrations of concepts and features (e.g. the photo of the forested dune ridges on the Darss cuspate foreland in Germany showing “marked inequality in altitude of crestlines”, p.427).

Douglas Johnson is the author of other books and many papers. They include:

  • New England Arcadian Shoreline (1925) --a masterpiece of regional coastal description dedicated to W. M. Davis.
  • Stream Sculpture on the Atlantic Slope (1931).
  • The Origin of Submarine Canyons (1939).
  • The Origin of Carolina Bays (1942)—a great reference for my PhD research.

One book I have not found is his Battlefields of World War One (anyone have a copy?).

I must pay tribute to his role as Editor of the first version of Journal of Geomorphology which ran for just 5 years (1938 to 1942). The Salutatory introduction to Vol.1 is worth a read; he notes quite pointedly “Geomorphologists enjoy special advantages arising from the fact that the field of their labors is one common to all students of earth science”. But even more personal is his editorial on the Scientist as Citizen. He sees great value in the scientist being able “to devote his special abilities primarily to the work for which he is trained, yet not to refuse a helping hand in the political arena” (p.62). During the life of this journal, Johnson wrote stimulating essays on “Studies in Scientific Method”. He encouraged leading geomorphologists of his era to publish and even today many of these papers remain standard background references. To me, a life in geomorphology would be incomplete without Douglas Wilson Johnson.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2019, for correspondence about this blog post please email