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Influential historian of the Pacific Northwest

Prof. Dorothy Olga Johansen ’33

A picture of Dorothy Johansen

Dorothy Johansen was an influential historian and beloved professor. Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Dorothy Olga Johansen ’33, professor emerita of history, died in Portland on December 13, 1999, at age 95. 

A preeminent historian of the Pacific Northwest, she was honored with the Oregon Women of Achievement award (1957) from Theta Sigma Phi, the C.E.S. Wood Award for lifetime achievement from the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts (1988), and the Captain Robert Gray Award for distinguished achievement in Pacific Northwest history from the Washington State Historical Society (1969 and 1970).

Dorothy was born in Seaside, Oregon, the daughter of John H. Johansen of Germany and Sophie (Binder) Johansen of Astoria, Oregon. She earned a diploma from the Oregon College of Education (Western Washington University) and taught in public schools in Seaside, Corvallis, and Yakima before attending Reed. She graduated from Reed in history-literature, writing the thesis "Carlyle and Michelet: Romanic Historians" with adviser Reginald F. Arragon [1923–74], She then worked as a resident adviser at the college and was appointed a graduate assistant in Reed’s history department. She went on to receive an MA and PhD at the University of Washington. She began teaching at Reed in 1935, launching a distinguished academic career. 

A beloved teacher, Dorothy also taught summer and visiting sessions at Portland State College, the University of Oregon, Montana State University, and the University of Washington, where the high school teachers she taught called her the "first teacher who could make history live."

While a professor at Reed, she served on the board of directors of the Portland public school district—one of the first women to do so; she implemented a gifted child program that received national attention. A recognized author and editor of many scholarly articles and papers, she also edited Beaver Books, a historical series for children. In 1957 Dorothy and the late Charles Gates, published Empire of the Columbia, a history of Oregon that was a mainstay in classrooms and libraries for years and one of the most important books about the region. It remains one of the standard works on the subject. 

In addition to her many publications, she wrote the entries on Oregon, Portland, and Astoria in the World Book Encyclopedia and the entry on Oregon in the Encyclopedia Brittanica

On leave in 1958–59 from Reed  to prepare a history of Reed’s early years supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, she produced a detailed unpublished study of the first eight years of the college (1911–1919). Promoted through Reed’s academic ranks, ultimately to professor of history and humanities, she retired in 1969 after 31 years in the classroom. In 1973, Reed awarded her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, as tribute to her continuing service. She continued to serve the college as official archivist until 1984.

Dorothy's home was bequethed to the college and serves as a center for academic support. A collection of her papers are preserved in the Hauser Library archives.

Appeared in Reed magazine: May 2000, "News of the College"

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