Ellis A. Johnson

September 2, 1906 – December 16, 1973

Brief Biography

Ellis A. Johnson was a leading figure in bringing operations research to the United States Army and a founding member of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA). Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, Johnson attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received bachelors and masters degrees in 1928 and 1929. For the next five years, he taught electrical engineering, mathematics, and physical chemistry at MIT while working on his dissertation on measuring the earth’s magnetic vector. Johnson was allowed to finish his dissertation in absentia and completed most of the associated experimental work during the late 1930s. Positions with the US Navy and government during World War II further delayed his PhD, which he eventually received in 1947.

When Johnson left MIT in 1934, he was first employed by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, followed by a stint at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. His work in Washington led to future consulting opportunities with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL). Due to his expertise on the magnetization of sedimentary rocks, Johnson was tasked with the development of operations with underwater mines and countermeasures.  He was at Pearl Harbor on NOL-related business on December 7, 1941, the day Japan carried out its surprise attack. Johnson served as NOL Associate Director of Research prior to establishing the Mine Warfare Operations Research Group in 1942. During most of the war, he was stationed as a mining operations officer of the Pacific Fleet, working alongside Thornton Page and William A. Wallace.

While the Navy and Air Corps had organized interdisciplinary operations research groups during the Second World War, the regular US Army had no OR organization that employed civilian scientists. In 1948, Army leadership recognized the need for developing such an entity to enhance the study of tactics, strategy, and organization. Johnson was appointed director of the resulting association, the General Research Office (GRO), that August. Managed under contract by Johns Hopkins University, the GRO (shortly renamed the Operations Research Office) was tasked with any “operations research and/or analysis on problems that are not unique to any one Army agency.” Their first significant projects dealt with the analysis of antiaircraft weaponry and the performance of equipment under various conditions.

At the start of the Korean War, Johnson successfully campaigned for ORO’s direct involvement with the combined United States-United Nations Army in the field. By 1950, there were eight different ORO teams stationed in Korea, with over half of the ORO staff eventually serving in active combat zones. In addition to purely tactical and organizational analysis, Johnson’s team, abetted by consultants and subcontractors, was tasked with the analysis of the proposed integration of black troops into previously all-white units. The resulting study overwhelmingly supported integration in the US Army and served as a major precursor to removal of societal barriers.

As Johnson expanded the scope of ORO research into non-military and non-governmental areas, he lost the support of his Army superiors. Johnson started a high school summer program, giving students the opportunity to work on pressing and classified issues, such as assessing the likely effects of an atomic attack on the capital. The leaking of these studies and their results to the press led Army leadership to scale back on the type of problems ORO could work on. When the contract between Hopkins and the Army expired, the partnership was not renewed and Johnson resigned. ORO’s technical facilities, administrative staff, and contract obligations were taken over by the newly formed Research Analysis Corporation.

Johnson went to academia after leaving the Operations Research Office. He taught at Case Institute of Technology and directed the university’s Systems Research Center from 1962 to 1965, supervising a number of future OR pioneers including David A. Schrady. Johnson returned to the Washington D.C. area as a research coordinator for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1967, he served as a consultant to the National Bureau of Standards, remaining there until suffering an aphasia that resulted from a complicated brain operation. He died three years later in Martinsburg, West Virginia.  

Other Biographies

Profiles in Operations Research: Ellis A. Johnson
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Page T., Petteee G. S., & Wallace W. A. (1974) Ellis A. Johnson, 1906-1973. Operations Research, 22(6): 1141-1155. (link)


Massachusetts Institute of Technology, BS 1928

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MS 1929

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, PhD 1947


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS

Application Areas


(1974) In Memoriam: Ellis A. Johnson. Operations Research, 22(6): 1139-1140. (link)

Page T., Pettee G. S., & Wallace W. A. (1974)  Ellis A. Johnson, 1906-1973. Operations Research, 22(6): 1141-1155. (link)

Awards and Honors

U.S. Air Force Legion of Merit Award

U.S. Army Distinguished Civilian Service Medal

U.S. Navy Distinguished Civilian Citation

U.S. Navy Legion of Merit Award

Selected Publications

Johnson E. A. (1954) Introduction: The executive, the organization, and operations research. McCloskey J. F. & Trefeth F. N., eds. in Operations Research for Management, xi-xxiv. Johnson Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Johnson E. A. (1960) The long-range future of operational research. Operations Research, 8(1): 1-23. 

Johnson E. A. (1961) Toward establishment of a role for operations research in economic development programs.Operations Research, 9(5): 743-747.

Johnson E. A. & Katcher D. A. (1973) Mines Against Japan. Naval Ordnance Laboratory, White Oak, MD. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington D.C.