New biology endowed chair created as tribute to friend, swimming teammate

Jan. 9, 2018 — In the mid-1970s, Grinnell College swimming team members returned to campus in January a week before the rest of the students.

The atmosphere was quiet, and the weather was mercilessly cold. In some years, swimmers had to sleep on cots in the gymnasium.

Doug Johnson ’77 & John Chambers ’77
   Doug Johnson ’77 & John Chambers ’77

“Basically all we did that week was swim, eat, sleep and bond,” says John Chambers ’77.

It was in this setting that Chambers better got to know his teammates, include a fast freestyler from Rochester, Minn., named Doug Johnson ’77. Those bonding experiences have stayed with Chambers more than 40 years later and played a role in his decision to endow a biology professorship in honor of Johnson.

The Douglas D. Johnson ’77 Professor of Biology will support students like Johnson who wish to pursue careers in medical or health fields. The professor will facilitate learning in cell and molecular biology, which serve as the building blocks for further pursuit in medicine, health sciences, and public health.

Johnson majored in biology at Grinnell and was particularly interested in the fields of human anatomy, physiology, morphology, and molecular biology of animals. Sadly, he never got the opportunity to work professionally in those areas. In 1981, while attending graduate school at Wake Forest University, Johnson died in an accident while hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“We are honored that John has chosen to create this lasting tribute to his friend,” says Mike Latham, Grinnell College vice president for academic affairs and dean. “It’s a most fitting way to commemorate Doug’s life while strengthening our ability to provide a world-class education in cell and molecular biology. Increased engagement in scientific research will provide our students with a rigorous and compelling experience, which is highly valued in medical and graduate schools.”

John Chambers ’77
John Chambers '77

Chambers, who recently retired as managing director of Standard & Poor’s Rating Services, returned to Grinnell in October to attend three microbiology classes and talk with biology faculty members. He saw firsthand how faculty are encouraging and supporting students interested in health-related careers.

“The Biology Department always has been strong,” Chambers says. “The excellence of the faculty should be recognized. They inspire students like Doug who want a career in health sciences. Ultimately, the success of the Johnson Professor of Biology will be measured by the successes of the students nurtured by the professor.”

What makes Grinnell’s biology program distinctive is the integration of research into every level of the curriculum, says Ben DeRidder, associate professor and chair of the Biology Department. In some ways, Grinnell flips the normal curriculum on its head. Beginning with introductory biology, students study the process of science that forms the foundation for the knowledge they gain in later courses. This gift will present more opportunities for first- and second-year students to gain early research experiences.

“Just getting a foot in the door in a lab with a professor is impactful,” DeRidder says. “Students — like Doug — who aim high will be able to get a good start. It’s a competitive field, so getting early opportunities are important.”

Johnson and Chambers competed on the swim team together under coach Ray Obermiller. Both lettered all four years, and they served as co-captains during the 1975-1976 and 1976-1977 seasons. They swam together in relays, like the time they won the 400 freestyle and 300 butterfly relays at the 1975 Iowa Collegiate Relays. Johnson helped set school records in the 400 and 800 freestyle relays at the time.

“The swim team was a very close-knit group,” Chambers says. “During swim season, we always had dinner together at Cowles Hall every night because we were practicing when the rest of the students were eating. A number of Doug’s teammates and friends still remember him. I think naming a professorship after him would be something he would have liked.”

Chambers and Johnson roomed together at away meets. The team traveled to Minnesota to face Carleton and St. Olaf. They also had league meets in Wisconsin and Illinois. The long trips provided more bonding experiences and time to talk about the past, present, and future.

While Johnson wasn’t able to get into medical school, in an ironic twist, he taught it instead. He served as a teacher’s assistant for first year anatomy courses in the Wake Forest Medical School.

Now Johnson’s name will be associated with future Grinnell students who seek to make a difference in health and medicine.

“As advancements in medicine continue to lead to new discoveries, this fund will continue to support knowledge and learning in yet-to-be discovered realms,” DeRidder says. “We are grateful for this gift and the substantial opportunities it will present Grinnell biology students for years to come.”

For your information:

John Chambers is establishing an endowed a professorship to honor his friend and support Grinnell’s Biology Department. Learn more about the College’s biology program.

For additional information about fund endowments, please contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at 866-850-1846.