Wesleyan portrait of William D. Johnston

William D. Johnston

Professor of History

Public Affairs Center, 135

Academic Secretary

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.

Prologue: Allegro

The world appears to me as multiple dimensions of networks. Within single dimensions, there are multiple systems of networks. Those systems contain yet further systems of networks. But no, don’t start thinking “and it is turtles all the way down.” As the systems become simpler and more distinct, at some point appears the realization that there just isn’t anything there any more. The focus remains clear but there is nothing to observe. Not empty. Just nothing there. Just go outside and look closely and slowly at a cloudless sky.



Historical Research: Largo

One dimension of understanding focuses on the temporal. Why do things change over time the ways they do? How can we best understand that? Those are the two questions that motivate my research. Something becomes interesting historically when it reveals a dimension of reality that we never realized is configured the way it is.

There is no human life without bodies, and the things fundamental to the life and death of bodies—including environment, procreation, nutrition, work, clothing, shelter, violence, disease—all have their own histories. The ways that people understand those things also change over time. If the work of the historian is to help people remember things that they have forgotten but should know, then it is important that we understand those histories. Much of my research has focused on disease and violence.

Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked that if we are lucky we have one good idea. If, indeed, it is any good, I would volunteer that mine is that we can understand complex historical events, and in particular epidemics, wars, genocides, and disasters of all kinds, only through the intersection of multiple epistemologies.

It is impossible to say that we understand a particular epidemic without exploring as many of its various dimensions as the sources allow. We must layer the epistemologies of epidemiology, biology, ecology with those of professional medical practitioners, local healers, folklore, and various cultural associations with those of policy makers and public health specialists.

The craft of the historian often requires a geographical specialization. Because of an event that occurred while I was a teenager, discussed below, I specialized in Japan. Or at least that’s a story that kind of makes sense.

My first book, The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan, explored these methodological issues with regard modern Japan’s most deadly chronic infectious disease. My present project, tentatively entitled “Cholera’s Chimera in Modern Japan,” examines modern Japan’s most deadly acute infectious disease in a similar way.


Teaching: Rondo

Good craftwork of any kind requires both an apprenticeship and constant practice. The result, whether in music, in buildings, in objects made of wood, in tools such as knives, in cooking, in books, or in thinking, has the ability to leave a lasting, positive impression. Teaching history offers an opportunity to help students with their apprenticeship and practice in learning how the past has created the present, how to think lucidly about causation over time using different kinds of evidence, how to write and argue clearly.

This is the case whether in my surveys of Japanese history, which show how a particular country—like all others—is a temporal and by implication ephemeral entity; in my courses on epidemics and public health, which encourage in-depth thinking about these life and death issues; or in my courses on the history of warfare and the atomic bomb, which address how wars have begun, how they were fought, and their human costs. My courses on the atomic bomb have the goal of dispelling many of the myths surrounding the development and use of nuclear weapons, including that they ended the war in the Pacific (the evidence is ambiguous at best) and that Truman decided to use them (he didn’t; his most momentous atomic decision was that future bombings could not occur without presidential approval).


Photography: Scherzo

Photography revolutionized both the ways we see and the ways we create objects to be seen. Visual representation after its creation became possible in ways that before then were difficult to imagine. While pursuing academic studies, I often drew and painted watercolors, oils, and acrylics. Sketchbooks were cheap and light. But photography had remained a passion, and once I had a position that allowed me to buy a camera and develop film, I started shooting. Of course, the drawings and abstract paintings from before didn’t entirely disappear in photography.

Most recently, photography has led me to collaborate with Eiko Otake. Actually, our collaboration began by co-teaching a course on Japan and the atomic bomb, an experience made it clear that we both thought in similar ways about many issues. Based on that, Eiko invited me to work with her photographically as well. Eiko’s extraordinary talents challenged me not to record her performances but rather to create performances that could be seen only through the photographic image.

This has led to our collaborative project, A Body in Places, which includes A Body in Fukushima among others. This project has allowed us to examine closely the intersections of multiple networks, including economic, political, and technological, in the disasters in Fukushima that resulted from the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns. Other places we have created images include Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station; Santiago and Valparaiso, Chile; Burlington, Vermont; Indian Point Nuclear Plant, New York; and Wall Street, Fulton Street Station, and Governor’s Island, all in New York City. In various ways, these all examine the issues that the Fukushima work also raises.


Epilogue: Presto

Probably the first proverb I learned in Japanese was koin ya no gotoshi. “Time flies like an arrow” is a common translation. More accurately it is “light and shadow are like an arrow.” The latter, while grammatically suspect, is better. We see time because we see the change from light to dark, day to night. Days—and years and decades—pass swiftly.

Change is the only constant. Nothing new there.

I first encountered Buddhism while a teenager in Wyoming. Somehow I knew that it was part of my life. After 40-plus years of meditation practice, in early January I plan to take priestly vows in the Soto School of Buddhism in Japan. There are some things that are best left to develop slowly. Unfortunately, the next 40 years will probably seem to fly by quickly. But fortunately, it is possible to be completely present in every moment.

Academic Affiliations

Office Hours

Fall 2018:  Tuesday, 2:00 to 4:00 and by appointment in Pac 135.


Fall 2018
HIST 355 - 01
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Spring 2019
HIST 256 - 01
Japan and the Atomic Bomb