First Black Woman to Become Tenured at Johns Hopkins University Dies at 84

A trailblazing researcher who loved to laugh and listen to Tina Turner has earned her angel wings.

Dr. Fannie Gaston-Johansson, the first Black woman to earn tenure as a professor at Johns Hopkins University, passed away from congestive heart failure at 84.

According to The Baltimore Sun, the nursing professor, who studied the aftereffects of breast cancer treatment in Black women, was credited for creating a pain-measurement device.

“Dr. Gaston-Johansson led a remarkable career as a trailblazing scientist, a brilliant researcher who elevated nursing in its rightful place as a science, and as a leader in developing new methods to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia,” Hopkins Nursing Dean Sarah Szanton said in a statement.

“She broke barriers, becoming the ‘first’ many times. … Students and colleagues have benefited from her experience, leadership, and commitment to inclusion,” Szanton added.

“She grew up in the segregated South, and during high school, she walked a mile each Sunday to babysit for a white family,” said her son Christian Johansson.

“The family was so impressed with her that they offered to pay her college tuition on the condition that ‘if you see someone, you help them in some kind of way.’ It became her lifelong call to action.”

“She was fearless. She learned the language quickly and began teaching in Swedish,” her son said, recalling the 15-hour work commute his mother took and her simultaneous commitment to two institutions.

In a 2022 Hopkins publication, Dr. Gaston-Johansson described her life mission surrounding the recruitment and promotion of diversity scholars.

The distinguished professor earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from what is now Winston-Salem State University, a master’s degree at the University of California San Francisco, and a doctorate from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Dr. Gaston-Johansson completed her dissertation on pain assessment, later patenting the Pain-O-Meter, a plastic handheld object that helped patients determine their levels of physical and emotional pain.

In Dr. Gaston-Johansson’s name, Hopkins created a $50 million diversity program to recruit and retain faculty “who demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.”

Dr. Gaston-Johansson was born and raised in Hickory, North Carolina, to sandwich shop owner Larry Gaston and dry cleaning worker Nellie Couslar. The trailblazer died on Jan. 4 at her Mount Washington home.