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Raynor Carey Johnson (1901–1987)

by Owen Parnaby

This article was published:

Raynor Carey Johnson (1901-1987), physicist, college master and mystic, was born on 5 April 1901 at Leeds, Yorkshire, England, eldest son of John William Johnson, bank clerk, and his wife Jane, née Wade. Educated at Bradford Grammar School, Raynor won an open scholarship in natural science to Balliol College, Oxford (BA, 1922; MA, 1926). He was invited to become a research student in spectroscopy, working with Professor (Sir) Thomas Merton. In 1923-26 he lectured in physics at Queen’s University, Belfast. On 7 October 1925 in Belfast he married Mary Rubina Buchanan with Methodist forms.

While at Balliol Johnson had also completed a B.Sc. (1922) at the University of London, gaining first-class honours in physics. He later graduated Ph.D. (1924) and D.Sc. (1927) from the University of London and was appointed a lecturer there in 1927. Between 1923 and 1933 he wrote or co-authored twenty-one papers, published a book, Spectra (1928), and laid the foundations for later texts Atomic Spectra (1946) and Introduction to Molecular Spectra (1949). His publications placed him among the leading research scientists in spectroscopy.

Johnson’s Methodist background and early friendship with the prominent nonconformist preacher and author Leslie Weatherhead shaped his commitment to use his vocation in the service of others. He believed that blood serum could be analysed by spectroscopy, leading perhaps to the discovery of the causes of diseases such as cancer. Accordingly, he began a medical course while continuing full-time research. With Weatherhead he pursued an interest in psychotherapy. He also became associated with the Society for Psychical Research.

Keen for a new challenge, in 1934 Johnson accepted the position of master at Queen’s College, University of Melbourne. His personal integrity and devotion to the interests of students soon overcame initial reservations that he was neither ordained nor Australian. Known affectionately as `Sam’, he contributed much to Queen’s academic, intellectual and social life, although until the 1950s he was frustrated in his plans for the renovation and extension of facilities. Having hoped to establish a wing for women students, he took the initiative in founding St Hilda’s College in 1964. He was disappointed by the council’s refusal to allow him to complete his medical course.

Unorthodox in some of his public views as master, Johnson also turned to a study of the paranormal in his personal research—an interest stimulated by his friendship with Ambrose Pratt. In little more than a decade he published four major books on the intersections of natural science, psychical research and mystical experience, applying to this work the same care and integrity as he had given to his scientific experiments. The Imprisoned Splendour (1953), Nurslings of Immortality (1957), Watcher on the Hills (1959) and The Light and the Gate (1964) were widely read and reviewed throughout the English-speaking world, establishing Johnson as a leading authority in the field. Abandoning his belief in the divinity of Christ and in redemptive theology, Johnson accepted Jesus only as a great spiritual leader. Such views troubled members of the Methodist Conference, yet he retained the confidence of his college council and community and his tenure continued until his retirement in 1964.

In the summer of 1962-63 Johnson visited India, where he had an audience with the president and philosopher Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who had invited him to address both houses of parliament on science and spirituality. The main purpose of his travels, however, was to meet two noted Indian mystics, Vinoba Bhave at Santiniketan, an ashram founded by Rabindranath Tagore, and Swami Pratyagatmananda at Calcutta. The visit strengthened his conviction that he would never understand the meaning of life by intellectual endeavour alone. Returning to Melbourne he affirmed the certainty of God’s existence and the possibility of knowing Him through the discipline of contemplation. On retirement he and his wife committed themselves to this quest at their cottage in the Dandenong Ranges.

Small, of slight build with domed forehead and slightly receding chin, Johnson had a warm, friendly, expressive face, twinkling eyes and a genial sense of humour. His outstanding qualities were sincerity, humility and simplicity. He had a mind that spanned the whole of human experience, but he never displayed his learning for its own sake. His goal was to understand the meaning of life and he was always ready to help others in their quest. His later books included The Spiritual Path (1971) and Pool of Reflections (1975). Shunning publicity for himself, he was distressed when a cult with which he was associated, known as The Family, received adverse media attention in the 1970s.

Survived by his wife, and their two daughters and two sons, Raynor Johnson died at Upper Ferntree Gully on 16 May 1987 and was buried in Macclesfield cemetery. A portrait by Louis Kahan is held at Queen’s, and a wing of the college is named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • O. Parnaby, Queen’s College, University of Melbourne (1990)
  • J. Arriens, The Writings and Beliefs of Raynor Johnson (1998)
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 May 1987, p 10
  • Johnson papers (Queen’s College Archives, University of Melbourne)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Owen Parnaby, 'Johnson, Raynor Carey (1901–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 April, 1901
Leeds, Yorkshire, England


16 May, 1987 (aged 86)
Ferntree Gully, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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