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Gregory Richard (Greg) Johnson (1947–1994)

by Nicos A. Nicola

This article was published:

Gregory Richard Johnson (1947–1994), medical scientist, was born on 4 November 1947 in Melbourne, only son and eldest of three children of Richard Johnson, an English-born carpenter and cabinet-maker, and his Victorian-born wife Charlotte Elaine, née Powell. After attending Fairfield Primary and Rosanna High schools, Greg enrolled at the University of Melbourne (BSc Ed, 1971; BSc Hons, 1973; PhD, 1976). He had held numerous part-time jobs as a schoolboy and he continued the practice as a university student, tutoring, marking exam papers, and working at a bookshop in the city. On 14 December 1968 at Knox Presbyterian Church, Ivanhoe, he married Patricia Joan Knight. She was the purchasing officer for the Brotherhood of St Laurence at Fitzroy.

 From 1973, under the supervision of R. O. Jones in the university’s zoology department, Johnson studied the initiation of haemopoiesis (blood-cell development) in the liver. He met Malcolm Moore, who was on sabbatical leave from the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York and working with Don Metcalf at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Moore and Metcalf had recently published several studies of embryonic haemopoiesis. Joining this fruitful collaboration, Johnson essentially moved to the WEHI. In 1975 he and Moore co-published a paper in Nature suggesting that haemopoiesis in the foetal liver occurs through the migration and seeding of progenitor (stem) cells from elsewhere in the foetus. Johnson joined the staff of Metcalf’s cancer research unit in 1976.

At that time Metcalf was trying to understand the regulation of white-blood-cell formation using the ability of the progenitor cells to form colonies in semi-solid agar, a technique that he and Ray Bradley had pioneered in Australia. Johnson helped to develop several specific assays, including those for B- and T-lymphocytes and eosinophils, and for erythroid and multi-potential progenitor cells. The growth of the multi-potential progenitor cells, in particular, was very important because it was the first time that this complex process could be studied outside a living animal. In addition, Johnson was involved in the twofold endeavour of purifying the growth (colony-stimulating) factors that fostered the proliferation of progenitor cells, and of delineating the different hierarchies of those cells.

For fifteen months in 1979 and 1980 Johnson gained experience at the Basel Institute for Immunology, Switzerland, and the Ontario Cancer Institute, Toronto, Canada. Back at the WEHI, in 1981 he was promoted to head of the cancer research unit’s developmental haematology laboratory. He became interested in the use of genetically engineered retroviruses to infect haemopoietic stem cells, both as a tool to study the responses to excess growth-factor stimulation and as a potential strategy for gene therapy. This research continued to occupy him after his appointment, effective from February 1993, as foundation professor of experimental haematology at the University of Queensland and chairperson of the joint experimental haematology program between the university, the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, and the Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland.

Johnson’s somewhat larrikin and irreverent style was much enjoyed during vigorous question times at international conferences. He filled his leisure hours with a large range of activities. Passionate about music, he collected both classical and popular works. Sports-minded, he was a fervent supporter of the Collingwood Football Club and a good basketballer, playing until his late thirties. Other interests included reading, travel, and building furniture and stereo equipment. The Johnsons loved renovating houses and then selling them. They were generous hosts who enjoyed entertaining.

In 1986 a malignant melanoma had been removed from Johnson’s back but by October 1993 the cancer had recurred and metastasised. With his doctors, he initiated a pioneering experimental immunisation strategy that aimed to generate an immune response against the tumour. This involved culturing his own melanoma cells, infecting them with a retrovirus that expressed granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, and injecting the dead cells into the skin and muscles. Given his extraordinary knowledge of what was involved and his ability to give informed consent, the regulatory bodies permitted the treatment, which started in January 1994. Despite some initially promising immune reactions and the regression of some of the tumours, the immune response ultimately subsided. He died from brain metastases on 14 May 1994 in South Brisbane and was cremated. His wife survived him. A ‘great scientist’ (Begley 1994, 13), he had published 122 scholarly articles and book chapters in his short career.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Begley, Glen. ‘Rebel Scientist Solved Some of Blood’s Mysteries.’ Australian, 6 June 1994, 13
  • Johnson, Tricia. Personal communication
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Annual Review. Melbourne: The Institute, 1992-93, 6
  • Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Annual Review. Melbourne: The Institute, 1993-94, 8

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nicos A. Nicola, 'Johnson, Gregory Richard (Greg) (1947–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnson-gregory-richard-greg-18628/text30262, published online 2018, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

4 November, 1947
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

14 May, 1994 (aged 46)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (skin)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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