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Richard F. Johnston, 1925 - 1914

Fern Davies

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Richard Fourness Johnston, former curator of the natural history museum at the University of Kansas, passed away on 15 November 2014. He was a fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union (1967) and a life honorary member of the Cooper Ornithological Society. 




As a youth, he developed an interest in zoology, especially birds. He served in the Army during World War II and

was injured in the European theater. He attended the University of California Berkeley, where he earned a PhD in

biology. His major advisor was Alden Miller and his thesis was titled, "Population Structure in Salt Marsh Song



In 1958, he joined the Zoology Department at the University of Kansas and became curator of its Natural History Museum. During his long career at KU, he devoted his energies to conducting research and mentoring many graduate students. His research focused on studying the adaptation of the English House Sparrow to different environments. These studies involved collecting many specimens from Europe and North America and obtaining physical measurements for analysis. Due to advances in genetic sequencing, these specimens are still valuable to scientists today. Observing the pigeons roosting on the ledge outside his office window led Richard in another direction. His work with pigeons culminated in the publication by Oxford University Press in 1995 of the book Feral Pigeons, co-authored with Marian Janiga.


Among his 39 graduate students were Peter Lowther, who wrote of Dr. Johnston, "Working with RFJ on sparrows duringmy time in Lawrence at KU during the 1970s are part of the fond memories of my “good old days.” Larry Heaney, now curator of mammals at the Field Museum, was another of his students and he remembered that "RFJ was, in the finestsense of the terms, a gentleman and a scholar. The class on evolution I took from him at KU was one of the finest I took during all of my years as a student, and his publications on evolutionary processes are some of the most clearly written and insightful that I have ever read. He loved working with students, was always kind and generous with his time. There is much in his life to celebrate." And Michael Murphy (Oregon State) wrote, "I’ve thought of him many times over the years and have used him as my model for mentoring students." Others of his graduate students included the late Abbot(Toby)Gaunt, the late Jon Barlow,and the late J.W. Hardy, along with Jim Rising, Sievert Rohwer, and Gary Schnell.


His outside interests included searching for mushrooms, tending to his small vineyard, and making wine. His wife predeceased him; he was survived by their three daughters.

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