Ann Johnson, engineering historian, dies of rare cancer


Ann Johnson, an expert in the history, philosophy and sociology of science and technology, died Dec. 11. She was 51. The cause of death was endometrial stroma sarcoma, a rare cancer.

Johnson, associate professor of science and technology studies who joined the faculty in 2015, did qualitative research on engineers and engineering. She focused on the ways in which engineers produce and circulate new knowledge and the role of specialized communities in the dissemination of knowledge.

Johnson was a scholar of “extraordinary breadth,” said Bruce Lewenstein, chair of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, noting that Johnson had worked in areas ranging from 19th-century American history to 21st-century nanotechnology.

“We hired her away from the University of South Carolina a couple of years ago because we realized that many of us on the faculty already knew her and her work, but in different contexts – history of engineering, social issues in nanotechnology, history of American science and technology.

“She threw herself into the department, volunteering to teach some of our largest classes, taking on a full complement of advisees right from the time she arrived, adding wisdom to faculty meetings,” Lewenstein said.

She was also a dedicated teacher. Sara Pritchard, associate professor of science and technology studies, reported that before she died Johnson had been concerned with making sure her students had letters of recommendation. She had also asked that some of her books go to her former students and others to Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, where one of her students did fieldwork. “It says a lot about her commitment to her students and teaching,” Pritchard said. “These stories say more than lists of research accomplishments.”

Her first book, “Hitting the Brakes” (2009), was a study of knowledge production and community formation in the design of antilock braking systems for passenger automobiles. In it, she argued that small problem-centered engineering communities are essential to knowledge production, even in industrial settings where engineers are employed by business competitors.

Johnson was also the co-editor of “Toxic Airs: Chemical and Environmental Histories of the Atmosphere” (2014) with James Rodger Fleming. With chapters analyzing airborne and atmospheric threats posed to humans, the book brought together historians of medicine, the environment, science and technology, and interdisciplinary scholars who addressed atmospheric issues at a spectrum of scales from body to place to planet. The contributors demonstrated how conceptions of toxicity have evolved over many centuries and how humans have both created and mitigated toxins in the air.

She also wrote or co-wrote papers on creativity, visualization and computer-aided drafting; innovation in clean combustion; chemistry and technology in automotive emissions control; the role of ethics in the teaching of nanotechnology; the culture of prediction in science; and environment and engineering institutions in the early American republic.

Johnson earned a bachelor of arts degree in history and theater in 1986 from the College of William and Mary. In 1990, she earned a master’s degree in fine arts in technical design and production from Yale University’s School of Drama. She graduated from Princeton University in 2000 with a doctorate in the history of science.

Prior to joining the Cornell faculty, she was an assistant professor of theater technology at the University of Southern California 1990-95. Johnson taught as a history instructor at Fordham University 1997-99; she joined the faculty as assistant professor of history in 2000 and remained there until 2004. She was assistant and then associate professor with a joint appointment in the departments of history and philosophy at the University of South Carolina 2004-15.

She is survived by her husband, Mark Stevens, and their son, Evan.

Memorial plans will be announced at a later date.

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John Carberry