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Obituaries

Fannie Gaston-Johansson, nursing trailblazer and the first Black woman to become a tenured Hopkins professor, dies

Dr. Fannie Gaston-Johansson patented a handheld plastic device that helped patients describe physical and emotional pain.

Dr. Fannie Gaston-Johansson, a retired Johns Hopkins nursing professor who created a pain-measurement device and studied the aftereffects of breast cancer treatment in Black women, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 7 at her Mount Washington home. She was 84.

She was the first Black woman to become a Hopkins tenured professor, the school said.

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“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.”

Born and raised in Hickory, North Carolina, Dr. Gaston-Johansson was the daughter of Larry Gaston, who owned a sandwich shop, and Nellie Couslar, who worked in a dry cleaning business. She was known as Mickey.

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In first grade, she told her family she was inspired to become a nurse after undergoing a school physical examination by nurses, who she thought “looked so good, dressed in all white, white shoes, white outfits, and white hats.”

“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.”

Dr. Gaston-Johansson was a basketball star and valedictorian of her 1956 Ridgeview High School class. She earned a Bachelor of Science in nursing from what is now Winston-Salem State University and achieved the highest test score honors when she took her nursing board examination.

She became an operating room nurse and served in New York, Texas and California. She earned a master’s degree at the University of California San Francisco.

While in Sweden as a foreign exchange student, she met her future husband, Dr. Sonny Johansson. They married in North Carolina in 1967, shortly after the Supreme Court overturned a ban on interracial marriage.

Dr. Gaston-Johansson received a doctorate from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

She did her dissertation on pain assessment. She later patented the Pain-O-Meter, a handheld plastic device that helped patients describe physical and emotional pain.

Except for brief trips away, Dr. Gaston-Johansson and her husband lived in Sweden from 1969 to 1985.

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Dr. Fannie Gaston-Johansson was known for work on the aftereffects of breast cancer treatment on Black women.

“She was fearless. She learned the language quickly and began teaching in Swedish,” her son said. “It was a dramatic change for her. She loved working there.”

Dr. Gaston-Johansson arrived at Johns Hopkins as an associate professor in 1993. In 1998, she was promoted to tenured professor, becoming the first Black woman to earn that post in the whole university.

“She loved to laugh and listen to music and dancing,” said her son Nicholas Johansson. “She liked Tina Turner and would perform her. She was a welcoming person and had an open-door policy and liked to host international visitors.”

In 2013, Dr. Gaston-Johansson was named a university distinguished professor. She was known for work on the aftereffects of breast cancer treatment on Black women, as well as for her research on end-of-life and pain-management issues, the school said in a tribute.

She maintained her appointments at Hopkins while also returning to the University of Gothenburg, where she served first as a professor and then as dean from 2001 to 2005. She divided her time between Baltimore and Sweden.

“She had a 15-hour commute to work and was committed to two institutions at the same time,” her son Christian said.

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Dr. Gaston-Johansson also served as director of the Center on Health Disparities Research. She retired in 2014 and became a professor emerita.

“She was a woman and a colleague who set very high standards,” said Phyllis Sharps, a longtime nursing school faculty member. “She was a very strategic thinker and planner, and she didn’t give up easily.”

Iye Kanu, a 2005 Hopkins nursing graduate and colleague, said: “She really was the first person who inspired me to believe that I could achieve anything. I truly didn’t understand my full potential until I worked with her because she challenged me.

“She was absolutely brilliant, relentless in her pursuits, very tough and meticulous. But she was also extremely nurturing as an individual, so caring, extremely generous.”

Dr. Gaston-Johansson twice received the Johns Hopkins Diversity Recognition Award. Hopkins created a $50 million diversity program in her name. The program seeks to recruit and retain faculty “who demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.”

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“My whole life has been about attracting diversity,” she said in a 2022 Hopkins publication. “I think recruiting and promoting diverse faculty scholars makes such an important difference in how you talk to people, how you understand people, and how you treat them.”

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Dr. Gaston-Johansson was named a 2015 Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing. She was inducted into the Sigma Theta Tau Honor Society International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame and was an elected member in the Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities in Sweden.

She was a member of Epworth United Methodist Chapel and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

A celebration of life will be held Jan. 27 at 10 a.m. at the March Life Tribute Center at 5616 Old Court Road in Windsor Mill.

Survivors include three sons, Patrik Johansson of Seattle, Christian Johansson of Baltimore and Nicholas Johansson of Baltimore; a daughter, Andrea Johansson of Baltimore; a brother, Douglas Gaston of San Mateo, California; and seven grandchildren.

She also raised a nephew, Larry Gaston of Phoenix, Arizona. She was his legal guardian.

Her marriage to Dr. Sonny Johansson, a University of Nebraska Medical Center pathologist, ended in divorce. He died in 2018.


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