The Life and Legacy of Volcanologist David A. Johnston: Setting the Record Straight

David Johnston in the summit crater of Mount St. Helens 
to collect samples. Photo by rick Hobblitt, USGS.
People around the world know that David Johnston was a volcanologist at Mount St. Helens in 1980, and that he was killed when the volcano erupted. His last words are repeated over and over. His last photo shared all over the internet. What isn't widely discussed is who he really was as a person. Author Melanie Holmes has dedicated the last four years to talking to his friends, colleagues, and family. Her journey began as a result of a conversation between friends—Melanie has known Dave’s sister more than three decades. Since she began, Melanie has read reams of clippings and letters that his parents kept, as well as Dave’s teenage diary. And she spoke to those of us who carry on his scientific legacy today. It is time that his story is told, 39 years later, to clear up misconceptions and to fill in the gaps about who he was – a genuinely nice guy.

“As a man, Dave left his mark on the world through his work in the field of geology. More important, and this is what his family is most proud of, he left an indelible imprint on the hearts that knew him”
                                                 - Melanie Holmes, from the book

David Johnston using gas-detection equipment. Courtesy of USGS.
I was born six years after that eruption, on the other side of the world, and my journey continues to be influenced by his. I grew up loving volcanoes, I don’t remember when I didn’t. As I told Melanie "When I was young, I dreamed of working around volcanoes but thought, ‘This is way too cool for a real job.’ Then at thirteen, my teacher spoke about volcanoes and volcanologists and I literally sat back in my chair and thought, 'this is what I am.' " I soaked up everything I could about volcanoes in the earlier days of the internet and something kept popping up – Mount St. Helens and the volcanologists who worked tirelessly to try to keep people safe. I learned about David A. Johnston and was inspired by his career path, but more importantly, I saw how many people spoke up about what a kind person he was. I believe that compassion and kindness are much more important than degrees.

Learning about that eruption taught me how important science communication is, and here I am today doing just that. I knew very early on that I wanted to study pyroclastic flows (destructive, hot, fast, avalanches of rock and gas that race down volcanoes). For my PhD, I ended up studying the May 18, 1980, pyroclastic flow deposits, something I am still in awe of today. It was for that reason that I spent a short time at the David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) in Vancouver, Washington. It was there that I very briefly met Melanie Holmes. I was rushing to get ready for a talk on my work to an audience much more knowledgeable than I am (and I felt it!), but it was like we were drawn to talk to each other—she loves to shine a light on women in STEM careers and asked for my business card. We’ve been in touch ever since, with friendship being a lovely outcome. The day we met, Melanie visited the volcano where Dave lost his life. Though his biography necessarily includes that fateful day in May 1980, this book focuses on the thirty years that preceded it—it is about who he was and what influences came together to form the man he became.

Just two weeks ago, the book rolled off the printer’s press! I got my copy and could not put it down. My eyes were glued to the pages as I boarded the plane to join Melanie for the book launch in his hometown of Oak Lawn, Illinois. The event turned out to be a bit of a memorial; he was, after all, a native son of that town. And it was my honor to be there—as a friend of Melanie and as a volcanologist to represent our field. Sitting with Melanie the day after the event, she recalled how volcanologist Tom Casadevall flew to Oak Lawn to be with Dave’s family after he died, and it felt poetic to have a volcanologist there to help present the book that talks of his life.

Melanie is quick to point out the article that begins the title of the book—“A.” The book frames Dave as “a” hero, not “the” hero. Dave was very much a part of a team of USGS scientists, and so it is appropriate to refer to him as “a hero among heroes,” as she puts it.

As for me, I shared with the group at the launch event that had I not seen how hard Melanie worked to get the details accurate, I would not have been there next to her. Over the years many liberties have been taken with Dave’s memory, with his character, and with his experiences. This book was published by the University of Illinois Press, with their quality control measures that included a peer review process. Melanie explained that this book has been written to set the record straight, and she has done a great job.

This is Dave’s story, as well as part of the rich history of volcanology and hazards science. We journey with him from boyhood to manhood, including struggles he faced growing up. This shows us that any one of us can inspire others, that we need not be perfect to do so, and that being kind is so important.
“Humanize our Heroes: in this way, others can identify with him; someone can see themselves as setting their feet upon a path that might seem insurmountable.”
                 -Melanie Holmes (from Oak Lawn book launch, June 2019)

This is also partly Harry Glicken’s story. As I flew home from Chicago, it was the anniversary of
"Geologist Harry Glicken recording field observations", 
memorial at Mount St. Helens
Harry’s death on Unzen volcano in Japan. He was 33 when he was killed—just weeks older than I am right now. He lived with survivor’s guilt after he lost his mentor (Dave) only to face his own tragedy in 1991. Far too often his name is left out of the story when people talk about Maurice and Katia Krafft dying that day as they tried to get footage at Unzen. Harry was there too. His story is also honored by Melanie.

“David is an icon for all dedicated scientists, most who labor in relative obscurity, but who do so with passion and honesty and excellence”
                                     - Jeff Renner (From the book’s Foreword)

This book is not just for volcanologists, this book is for everyone. We are all on a journey of some sort, many of us are trying to better ourselves and make a difference in the world, and that is what this book describes. It does of course include volcanoes, eruptions, and the race against time to figure it out before it is too late. This is also a story of discovery, science, and passion. It is about family and finding your own path. It is about friendship and teamwork. And love. And loss. And legacy—that of David Johnston and the larger legacy of the mountain and the science.

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