James P. Johnston, a professor of mechanical engineering and a foremost authority on fluid dynamics, died July 13 in Palo Alto, California. He was 88.

James P. Johnston

James P. Johnston began teaching at Stanford in 1961. (Image credit: Jose Mercado / Stanford News Service)

Johnston came to Stanford in 1961 from a job with industrial manufacturer Ingersoll-Rand, where he had made a name for himself leading an investigation of fluid flow across the blades of centrifugal compressors. At Stanford, a few years after his arrival, it was noted that Johnston was among the “top two or three most highly respected men in the country in the field of fluid mechanics of turbomachinery.”

Johnston was admired as much for his teaching as his technical acumen, where he was hailed as a researcher-teacher who produced well-trained students. He mentored at least 23 doctoral candidates through their research programs, according to his own count in 1992.

“His real strength was in mentorship of students and junior colleagues,” said John Eaton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford and a former student of Johnston. “He cared so much about each person’s success. He taught me his motto: ‘Get famous by helping your students become famous.’ And I have done my best to pass that along to young professors as they join the department.”

As a mentor, Eaton said Johnston provided just the right degree of ideas and direction to keep each student moving forward and was a relentless promoter of his graduates.  He continued to meet with Eaton’s PhD students well into his 80s, offering both technical guidance and career advice.

As a researcher, Johnston published frequently throughout his career on subjects ranging from fluid mechanics and heat transferto thermodynamics and fluid machinery. He counted at least 70 published papers in his list of publications, the last in 1993. He retired in 1992, but was recalled several times to continue teaching until the mid-1990s.

Johnston was remembered as a humble man whose work had a major impact.  “He developed ingenious experiments to isolate important-but-elusive turbulent effects for closer study,” Eaton recalled. Some of his earliest papers are still regularly cited in journals 50 years later.

Diverse interests

James Paul Johnston was born May 11, 1931, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He earned all his degrees at MIT, including both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time under MIT’s honors program. He was among the top five members of MIT’s Class of 1954.

He earned his doctor of science degree in 1957 while working as research associate at MIT’s gas turbine lab. That year he joined Ingersoll-Rand in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where he was employed until 1961, when he joined Stanford as an assistant professor. He was quickly promoted to associate professor in 1964 and full professor in 1973.

Johnston was an active member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, serving as chair of the Fluid Mechanics Committee. He also served as associate editor for a time of the Journal of Fluids Engineering.

In his family life, Johnston and his wife, Joan, a community activist and former president of the Palo Alto School Board, were an inspiration to others, particularly a generation of women doctoral students who went on to faculty careers, Eaton noted.

In his hobbies, Johnston was an avid fly-fisherman who loved the outdoors and an accomplished artist. Had he not become an engineer, Johnston often remarked, he would surely have been a painter. Rarely was he without his sketchbook. His watercolors, particularly his majestic Western landscapes, filled his home and Stanford office.

Johnston is survived by his five children: Susan Coote of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Patricia Moore of Athens, Georgia; John Johnston of Redwood City, California; Thomas Johnston of Sunnyvale, California; and Anne Johnston of Los Altos, California; as well as a sister, Barbara Berkenfield of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Johnston has 13 grandchildren and was predeceased by his wife, Joan, in 2012.

A memorial service is being planned. In lieu of flowers, the family requests gifts in the name of James P. Johnston be made to the Pacific Art League.