Dorothy E. Johnson was an outstanding nurse theorist and educator in the second half
of the 20th century. She spent years developing the Behavioral System Model theory
that she presented in written form in 1980.
Early Life and Education
Dorothy E. Johnson was the youngest of seven children born to a shrimp and oyster factory
superintendent and his wife in Savannah, Georgia. Born on August 21, 1919, a decade before
the Great Depression, that event had a great impact on her life. In 1938, she completed
an associate degree from Armstrong Junior College but after that, because of finances,
took a year off from academic studies and became a governess for two children in Miami,
Florida. It was during this time that she decided on a career that would encompass
nursing, children and education.
In 1942, Dorothy graduated first in her class from Vanderbilt University in Nashville,
Tennessee, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. She went on to earn
a master's degree in public health from Harvard University in Boston in 1948.
Following graduation, Johnson worked for a short time in public health nursing before
beginning to teach at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. After five years of
teaching at Vanderbilt, her career path led her to California where she taught at the
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Nursing. During her career there,
she was an assistant professor of pediatrics, an associate professor of nursing and a
professor of nursing. Other than a year's sabbatical in 1955 when she taught at the
Christian Medical College School of Nursing in Valiore, South India, she remained at
UCLA until her retirement in 1978.
Dorothy Johnson was an educator during the time of transition in nursing education.
Nursing schools were evolving from hospital-based, three-year diploma schools to four-year
university programs. Johnson and her colleague, Lulu K. Wolf Hassenplug, founded the first
four-year generic basic nursing program in the United States during their years at UCLA.
Nursing students were receiving better education and not just being looked upon as free
labor. They were being educated in the sciences and being prepared to deliver better
nursing care. This was the optimum time for Johnson to receive encouragement and funding
for the development of her theory.
The American Nursing Association (ANA) received a grant in 1971 that helped them survey
nursing schools to make sure they were meeting requirements for quality nursing education.
The ANA also gave recommendations for improvement of the schools. There was a need to
educate nurses and money available to make changes. This was the climate in which
Johnson spent her career, and it was a time of growth for the nursing profession.
In later years, Johnson was given many honors including the 1975 UCLA Faculty Award,
the 1977 Lulu Hassenplug Achievement Award from the California Nurses' Association
and the 1981 Vanderbilt School of Nursing Award for Excellence in Nursing.
Dorothy Johnson retired from UCLA in 1978 as Professor Emeritus. She spent her last
years in Key Largo, Florida, where she helped others with research and the development
of her theory. In 1999, she died at the age of 80.
Johnson's Behavior System Model theory began to form in her mind during her early
teaching years. At that time, she felt that there was no scientific evidence as to
how nursing should be taught. She was influenced by Florence Nightingale's
Notes On Nursing and especially by the importance that Nightingale placed on
the fundamental needs of the patient rather than on the disease process. She also noted
that Nightingale stressed the importance of the environment for the patient.
Johnson believed that medicine and nursing are two distinct specialties with two different
focal points; medicine's focus is on the biological system while nursing's focus is on the
behavioral system. She considered nursing a science as well as an art and felt that nursing
education was for the purpose of improving the future of nursing care. Evidence-based
knowledge concerning the effect of nursing care on patients was of prime importance to
Dorothy Johnson's Behavior System Model of Nursing that was first proposed in 1961
and presented in written form in 1980, has been the basis of many research studies
and has promoted the recognition of nursing as an autonomous discipline. Her work is
not as well-known as some, but her thoughtful contributions to the profession of
nursing deserve careful study and renewed interest. She advocated the combination of
research, theory and evidence-based nursing practice as the criteria for excellence in
Publications related to Dorothy Johnson
- Conner, S. S., Harbour, L. S., Magers, J. A., and Watt, J. K. Dorothy E. Johnson: Behavioral System Model
- Theory Development: What, Why, How?
- Johnson, Dorothy. One Conceptual Model of Nursing, 1968 paper
- Johnson, Dorothy. Barriers and Hazards in Counseling
- Johnson, Dorothy and Riehls, J.P. and Roy, C., Eds. The Behavioral System Model for Nursing
- Johnson, Dorothy E. Bio Sketch, unpublished manuscript
- Nursing Theorists and Their Work, 7e
- Perspectives on Nursing Theory 6th (Sixth) Edition byReed