Being a nurse has been a calling for Mattiedna Johnson, RN, MTMA Div., of Cleveland, Ohio. In fact, it could be said that her pioneering work in health care is part of a divine agreement. The fifth child born to Arkansas sharecroppers, she tells the story of how her father, upon seeing how tiny she was at birth, begged God to spare her life. In exchange, he promised to return his daughter to God in life. As part of the bargain, Johnson’s father told her when she was just a child that she was to become a medical missionary in Africa.

Out of her determination to fulfill her father’s promise, Johnson has spent a lifetime making groundbreaking contributions to the health care field. Her work has improved both patient care procedures and the profession of nursing. She has helped form organizations for African-American nurses, been a pioneer in setting up public blood pressure screenings and conducted history-making research that helped develop a cure for scarlet fever.

These contributions have not gone unnoticed. On October 23, 1990, the Hon. Louis Stokes, one of the nation’s most prominent black Congressmen, saluted Johnson in a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives. Citing Johnson for her many accomplishments, Stokes called her “a great pioneer and a source of inspiration to our community and the nation.”

Making a Lasting Impression

Growing up in Arkansas, Johnson always knew she would one day be a nurse. As a student, she excelled in her classes. In college, she spent her weekends cleaning other people’s houses to help pay for her nursing studies.

In her last year of high school Johnson and another student tied for top honors in her class. Because Johnson had not been an original member of the graduating class (she skipped eighth grade), she was named salutatorian instead of valedictorian. But she was determined to prove that second place didn’t mean second best. Johnson recalls the effect her speech had on the audience attending the commencement ceremony.

“As I spoke, people stood up and listened,” she says. “They didn’t stay in their seats. When I finished my speech, they stood there and clapped for a good three minutes. Everybody was crying, although I didn’t know why. My subject was about being prepared for better things.”

In fact, her words made such an impression on those attending that even after Johnson went away to college, people in her hometown continued to remember her and her plans to be a nurse. “When I went to nursing school and came back home to visit, these people would send me a dollar and write to me,” Johnson recalls. “It was a community type of thing, a small town thing.”

Johnson graduated from Jane Terrell Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Memphis, Tenn., in 1940. She then worked as a post-graduate nurse at Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., where she earned her license as a registered nurse.

“This was a hospital where a woman had started a program to pull in nurses from small hospitals to replace nurses who had gone on to Fort Wachuca in Arizona in the U.S. Army [during World War II],” Johnson recalls.

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This experience laid the groundwork for what would later become one of Johnson’s most significant contributions to health care.

“As post-graduate nurses, we could go to other programs,” she says. “I went to the St. Louis Isolation Hospital for a period of study. There I took care of a little baby, 18 months old, who had scarlet fever. His grandmother had given him some kerosene on sugar, which was the common treatment at the time. In those days, the disease was incurable. He died in my arms. When I put him in the morgue, I noticed they put a blood-red tag on his foot, a burnt-orange tag on the coffin and a white tag on the casket.”

Johnson returned to Homer G. Phillips Hospital where, one day, she saw in a physician’s magazine an advertisement for the Northwest Institute of Medical Technology in Minneapolis. She applied for the program and was accepted. On January 1, 1943, she took the train to Minneapolis, where her life would change in many ways.

“I stayed in the home of Dr. and Mrs. Winston,” Johnson remembers. “He was a professor at the University of Minnesota and his wife worked with the Red Cross. Knowing I was a nurse, she would talk to me.

“One day, Mrs. Winston was making some notes and she asked me what I would do [as a nurse] if Minneapolis were bombed and I saw someone injured in the street. I told her I would first see if the person were breathing and establish the breathing process, then I would check for bleeding. Mrs. Winston put that information in her notes and started a disaster nursing program for the Red Cross. Before she left to go to France [during the war], she gave me a Red Cross pin.”

In December, after a year of study, Johnson completed the medical technology program. In order to remain in Minneapolis, she rented rooms in people’s homes and returned to cleaning houses to pay for her expenses. One home where she lived was that of the family of her future husband.

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Breaking the Mold

Not long after completing her medical technology courses, Johnson came across the career opportunity of a lifetime.

“In February 1944, there was a big article in the paper describing the U.S. Army Medical Corps’ Penicillin Project that was being brought to the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology,” Johnson says. “I caught the early bus the next day and went to the university.” She was hired by the project’s director, Dr. Clyde Christianson, and worked on the research team for the next several months. She was the only African American, the only laboratory technician and the only registered nurse on the project.

Johnson’s experience from the isolation hospital in St. Louis helped her convince the project’s leaders of her potential value to the team. “When I first got to the university,” she relates, “I went up some steps and went into the agriculture building. Dr. Christianson was squatting down looking at some laboratory specimens. Some of them had burnt-orange tags. I told him that somewhere among the ones with the burnt-orange tags was a blood-red tag because somebody had died, which meant these specimens were contaminated. He stood up, looked at me and said, ‘What do you suggest?’”

British scientist Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1928, after observing that a common bread mold had the ability to kill bacteria that caused disease. He had been searching for a chemical that would combat many of the deadly diseases soldiers suffered in World War I. When World War II began, there was a renewed need for such a medicine.


Johnson’s experiences growing up on a farm proved to have an unexpected benefit on her ability to understand and work with penicillin molds. As a child, she had been taught to churn butter and make lye soap, and she had helped her mother make apple jelly. Now, working in a makeshift laboratory in the corner of the agriculture building, she drew upon her knowledge of these natural scientific processes to develop techniques for separating the essence of molds and matching the residual liquid to a commonly used chemical substance called oxyacid. She also established isolation procedures for many disease materials that were sent to the lab.

The Penicillin Project team experimented with many molds from all over the country, growing them in a potato soup liquid. But, says Johnson, it was a mold on some cooked squash in her refrigerator at home that tested out to be the one that killed the germs.

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Johnson was particularly interested in treatments for scarlet fever because of her experience with the baby who had died from the disease at the St. Louis hospital. Toward the end of the project, she conducted experiments with a tomato soup mold, testing it against specimens of saliva from an infant who had succumbed to scarlet fever. This particular penicillin mold turned out to be such an effective devourer of scarlet fever germs that Johnson nicknamed it “the terrible mice mold,” because under the microscope the mold looked like it was “running around the house tasting everything.”

After she discovered that penicillin was a viable treatment for scarlet fever, Johnson gave her results to one of the researchers with whom she worked in the lab, to take to the pharmaceutical company where he was employed. She left her final mark on the project by giving this advice: “Make the medicine up in peppermint-flavored syrup for babies and children, to be given around the clock until the fever breaks.”

Africa and Advocacy

But Mattiedna Johnson’s exceptional contributions to medicine and nursing didn’t end there. After completing her work on the Penicillin Project, Johnson embarked on a new chapter in her life. She received American Red Cross certification and began teaching disaster nursing and first aid. After the war, Johnson and her husband, a Methodist minister, spent two years in Africa, where she worked as a medical missionary in Liberia. She also taught chemistry and hygiene courses at the College of West Africa in Monrovia.

“My father’s hope for me when I was born was that I would become a medical missionary and go to Africa to serve,” she explains. “So this was a continuation of that promise my father made to God.”

Johnson and her husband eventually returned to the United States. Because of her husband’s many church assignments, they moved frequently. In 1959 they settled in Cleveland, where she tutored nurses for the Ohio Board of Nurse Education and Registration and worked as an American Red Cross volunteer. She also taught courses on babysitting and home nursing. But it wasn’t long before Johnson again became involved in making medical history.

“Some other nurses and I were at the church one day and we decided that Rev. Kelley [Johnson’s husband] was having too many funerals,” she says. “He was having two or three funerals a week, and we wanted to find out what was killing these people. We decided to do a 575-person blood pressure screening at Cory United Methodist Church. That was the first time that blood pressures had been taken [at a location] away from a doctor’s office. After that, blood pressure screening became widespread.”

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In her later years, Johnson became an active participant in the 21st Congressional District Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, chaired by Ohio Congressman Louis Stokes. In this capacity, Johnson began speaking out on behalf of African-American nurses. Realizing how difficult the socioeconomic situation was for black patients and health care workers, she held a meeting of black nurses at a 1970 nursing convention. That meeting led to the formation of the National Black Nurses Association in Cleveland in 1971. (The NBNA is now based in Silver Spring, Md.) Johnson later organized the Cleveland Council of Black Nurses in 1973.

In addition, Johnson’s continuing concern about the problem of high blood pressure in African-American communities led her to become actively involved in the International Society on Hypertension in Blacks (ISHIB).

“Mattiedna Johnson has been a member of the International Society on Hypertension in Blacks for the past decade,” comments C. Alicia Georges, RN, EdD, FAAN, secretary-treasurer of ISHIB and a past president of the National Black Nurses Association. “She was the recipient of our community service award for her work in blood pressure screening and education in the greater Cleveland area. Mattiedna has been a true community advocate and community educator, long before it became vogue. Her dedication to improving the health status of minority communities is exemplary.”

Mattiedna Johnson may be only one person, but her contributions to health care and the nursing field have affected the lives of many, thanks to a father’s promise to God and a nurse’s dedication to humanity.

Author’s Note: To learn more about Mattiedna Johnson and her life’s work, read her autobiography, Tots Goes to Gbarnga, available online from Barnes & Noble at The book can also be purchased directly from Johnson; for more information, email her daughter, Bobby Kelley, at [email protected].

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