Gilbert Johnson, 92, bacteriologist and Renaissance man

Posted: August 01, 2012

BERNADETTE Maida was only 17 when she entered the orbit of the remarkable Gilbert C. Johnson. It would be a life-changing experience for the young woman.

He was in charge of the non-pathology side of Chestnut Hill Hospital's laboratory and ran the technician-training program, which Bernadette joined. She also was his student at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. She credits him with putting her career on a path that led to executive positions in the pharmaceutical industry.

"He was an incredible man, very passionate in what he did," she said. "He instilled that passion in others. He was like my father. They came from the old school, grew up in tough circumstances. He had that personality, but with kindness underneath it."

Bernadette's experience with Gilbert was hardly unique. He affected hundreds of other young people who came into his purview and gained the same thorough education, absorbing the spirit of his devotion to his science, while having a few laughs along the way. Gilbert was known for a dry and sneaky sense of humor.

Gilbert Johnson — whose life ranged through hitchhiking around the country in his youth, to working as a bartender in pre-Castro Havana and serving in an Army hospital in Georgia where one of his jobs was checking the ladies working in bordellos for venereal disease — died Friday at the age of 92. He once caught a ride with Gen. George S. Patton, crawled under barbed wire with the Army Rangers and helped to develop methods of treating infected war wounds as a bacteriologist.

He was living at the Attleboro Nursing Center in Langhorne at the time of his death. He previously lived in Blue Bell.

Gilbert joined the Chestnut Hill Hospital lab in 1948, working with Dr. S. Brandt Rose, a pathologist with whom he had worked at the old Philadelphia General Hospital.

He rose to run the non-pathology side of the lab as administrator and later became the lab's technical consultant, overseeing the transition from traditional manual bench methods of testing to a fully automated laboratory. He retired in 1986.

Bernadette Maida described Johnson's working style as "ubiquitous."

"We were on two floors, and he was everywhere," she said. "I always thought he had eyes behind him. He always knew what everybody was doing. He had such in-depth knowledge, not just theoretical. He was into tearing equipment apart. He tinkered with everything. He wanted us to understand how equipment worked, how it was named and fit together. He taught me something I never learned anywhere else: He taught me how to connect the dots."

The "tough circumstances" Bernadette mentioned were especially tough for the kid growing up in a house without electricity in Ardmore with a father, Gilbert C. Johnson Sr., who was battling alcoholism, and a mother, the former Rosalie Greer, who died when he was 16. By the time he was in Lower Merion High School, his father owned a failing diner and bus station in Ardmore. Gilbert took over the business, made it profitable and became an exceptional cook.

Even as a youngster, Gilbert was interested in science. He had his own chemistry lab in his house until an experiment with sulfur stunk up the place, and he moved it into the barn.

He would ride his bicycle to Wings Field in Blue Bell to help pilots rebuild airplanes in exchange for plane rides.

After graduating from Lower Merion in 1939, Gilbert roamed the country hitchhiking and taking odd jobs. He eventually made it to Cuba, where he tended bar in Havana. By this time, war was raging in Europe and it seemed inevitable that the U.S. would get involved. He beat the draft by enlisting in the Army.

He was assigned to the Army Service Forces Regional Hospital at Fort Benning, where he became lead technician in the bacteriology lab. He met Patton, who later gave him a ride in his staff car when the general was showing his nervous men how to take immunization shots like a soldier.

Gilbert requested to be assigned to the Medical Corps in the Philippines and underwent combat training with the Rangers before his deployment to Fort Mills on Corregidor. Students of World War II history know what happened to Corregidor: It was overrun by the Japanese, and prisoners of war made the notorious "Bataan death march." Every other man in Gilbert's unit died.

After the war, Gilbert enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science — now the University of the Sciences — receiving his bachelor's degree in 1951 and his master's in 1953.

"My father was a Renaissance man," said his son, Dan Z. Johnson, a former Inquirer photographer. "He knew a lot about almost everything. He grew up at a time when it was possible to do that. He was a gifted painter, chef, landscaper and gardener. He was a storyteller with a dry and twisted sense of humor that always caught you off-guard and left you laughing. He could answer almost any question that you threw at him."

Besides his son, he is survived by his wife, Evelyne; a daughter, Suzanne Johnson-Reese; a sister, Rosalie Conroy; and two grandchildren. He was predeceased by a brother, Alex Johnson.

Services: 1 p.m. Aug. 19 at Attleboro Community auditorium, Langhorne.

Contact John F. Morrison at 215-854-5573 or email Follow him on Twitter at @johnfmorrison.

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