Wesleyan portrait of William D. Johnston

William D. Johnston

John E. Andrus Professor of History

Professor of History

Public Affairs Center, 135

Professor, Science in Society


Professor, Environmental Studies

Professor, East Asian Studies



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BA Elmira College
MA Harvard University
PHD Harvard University

William D. Johnston

Johnston focuses on how we can understand complex historical events, and in particular epidemics, wars, genocides, and disasters of all kinds, only through the intersection of multiple epistemologies.

While growing up in Wyoming I developed an interest in both Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism. While in college, I spent my junior year in Japan and started a practice of Zen meditation. While in graduate school, I became interested in the history of medicine and science in eighteenth-century Japan, fields well developed by Daniel Trambiolo and Frederico Marcon, but was discouraged from studying these fields by my advisors. Instead, I started to study the history of disease and medicine in nineteenth-century Japan, resulting in my work on the history of tuberculosis in that country. An interest in the history of medicine led to the discovery of documents about Abe Sada, which led to my second book. Since then I've written on the history of syphilis and of cholera in Japan, but at this point (Dec. 3, 2018) am back-burnering the history of disease and public health in Japan in order to focus on other long-standing projects. One is to write a book with a working title of "How War Went Nuclear" that examines the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki over the longue durée. Another project is to finish the photography book with Eiko Otake, for which we have received a Doris Duke Fellowship. Yet another is to finish the translation of Amino Yoshihiko's Muen kugai raku.  Another possible project is to place the life of Dōgen in historical context, a subject in which many fellow Zen practitioners have expressed a strong interest. But before doing that, I first need to finish the other projects already underway.

Academic Affiliations

Office Hours

Spring 2020:  Tuesdays, 2:00 to 4:00 or by appointment