Helen Johnson


School of Nursing Distinguished Alumni Award (1977)
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)
School of Nursing


For many people, Helen Johnson is Purdue nursing. Her energy and enthusiasm were in large part responsible for the vitality and growth of nursing education at Purdue. "You can never stand still," she told an interviewer in 1988.

Helen Johnson was first exposed to the career that became a lifelong passion during a hospital stay at the age of 7 with a broken leg. There, she developed an interest in nursing and vowed to give others the care that she had received.

Johnson earned a general nursing degree from Indiana University in 1936, staying on to work at the IU Medical Center, where she moved from staff nurse to head nurse. She earned a baccalaureate degree in nursing in 1949 and became assistant chief of nursing education at the Veterans Administration Hospitals at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, then continued her studies by earning a master's degree in education from Butler University in 1952. She rose to the position of chief of nursing services for the Veterans Administration Hospital before returning in 1957 to the IU Medical Center as associate director of nursing services and assistant professor of nursing.

It was in 1962, during a trip to Purdue for her son's college orientation, that Johnson decided to check on rumors that University administrators wanted to start a nursing program. Her down-to-earth personality, fiery spirit and accomplished record as an administrator soon led to her appointment as the founding director of Purdue's nursing program and, in 1979, the first head of the University's School of Nursing.

In one year -- 1962 -- Johnson laid the foundation for the entire Purdue nursing program, a two-year associate degree program offered in West Lafayette and across Purdue's four regional campuses. She developed a curriculum, hired faculty, arranged clinical sites, found extramural funding, and secured state approval for the new program. She would remain at the helm for the next 18 years, as the school grew in curriculum -- first offering a bachelor's degree in the fall of 1970 -- and students. She retired in 1980, but not before earning a doctorate in higher education administration from Indiana University.

One of Johnson's crowning achievements occurred in 1972 with a grant from the United States Public Health Service that largely funded the construction of a new nursing building on the West Lafayette campus, which she helped design. It now bears her name.

In addition to her work in higher education and at Indiana medical centers, Johnson strove to improve the quality of nursing education and care through her role in many professional nursing associations.