Professor John C. Sperrin Johnson

Prof. John C. Sperrin Johnson (2/10/1885-19/5/1948)
Professor of Botany, UCC, 1932-1948

Note: This is preliminary research but more remains to be done, particularly about Sperrin Johnson’s academic career and publications.


Life and family

Professor John Charles Sperrin Johnson, Botany, University College Cork, UCC, Ireland

John Charles Johnson was born on October 2 1885 in the family home at 109 Douglas Street, Cork city, to Andrew Johnson and his wife Kate (née McCarthy).[1] He was baptised at the South Chapel (St Finbarr’s South), Dunbar Street, on October 4 1885.[2] Andrew’s occupation was originally given as ‘coach painter’ in the birth register, but changed to ‘coach builder’ on May 18 1912 (on statutory declaration of Kate Johnson). In July 1924, while in New Zealand, John Charles Johnson changed his surname by deed poll to ‘Sperrin Johnson’.[3]

John Charles was the eldest of the family. His sister, Elizabeth Jane, was born on October 8 1888 at 109 Douglas Street.[4] She was baptised on October 11 at the South Chapel. [5] The family home was now Grenville House, probably on Kyrls Quay. The youngest of the family, William David, was born on December 9 1893 at 20 Kyrls Quay,[6] in the parish of SS Peter and Paul. Andrew’s occupation was still a coach builder.

By the time of the 1901 Census, the family were still living at Kyrls Quay.[7] Andrew, aged 39, is now a ‘master coachbuilder’. John is 15 years old, a scholar, and is the only member of the family who has Irish and English. The household religion is Roman Catholic. Ten years later, in the 1911 Census, the family are at Grenville Place.[8] There are two additions to the household: Kate’s mother, Elizabeth McCarthy, aged 87 (born Kinsale), and a domestic servant. This census reveals that Andrew and Kate were married 26 years and that there had been two other children, who had died. Both John and Elizabeth are still living at home. John is aged 25, a Master of Arts and a medical student at UCC. Elizabeth is a student of music, possibly at Cork School of Music.

The younger son, William Johnson is no longer at home by the time of the 1911 census. At this stage he had already attended UCC and begun his clerical studies at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He was ordained there on April 28 1918.[9] His career began abroad at Plymouth (1918-1924), then he returned to the Cork Diocese as chaplain to the Ursuline Convent, Blackrock (1924-7), curate at Kealkill (1927-9), chaplain at Greenmount Industrial School (1929-35), curate at Haulbowline, Kinsale and Bandon (1935-55), and parish priest at Caheragh, Drimoleague and Ballincollig (1955-1974). At the request of Bishop Cohalan, he introduced the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland Association to Cork and was its first Diocesan Chaplain. The Very Rev Canon William D. Johnson died on January 17 1974 at the Bons Secours Hospital, Cork, and is buried in the grounds of St Mary and St John Catholic church, Ballincollig. He must have been held in high esteem by his former parishioners in Kinsale, as a special meeting was convened there in order to convey condolences to Fr Johnson on the death of his brother in 1948.[10]

It was announced in May 1948 that Prof. Sperrin-Johnson had died at the Mercy Hospital Cork, ‘rather unexpectedly’,[11] he was aged 62. A brief article about the funeral appeared in the Irish Times (22 May 1948, 3), at which several of his McCarthy cousins attended and a large attendance of UCC staff.  A fuller article about the funeral appeared in the local press.[12] He was buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Ballyphehane, Cork. Obituaries were published in the Irish Times (20 May 1948) and Cork University Record (14 (Christmas 1948)).

His address in Cork in 1933 was Knockglass House, Upper Road, Crosshaven, but he then took out a 31 year lease of Blackrock Castle from Cork Corporation in 1934.[13] Apparently the rent was nominal but it was reported that he intended to spend £400 on restoration the property. It was described as ‘an attractive and compact residence with gate lodge, garden and had a garage attached’. A lengthy  description of the interior stated that it had modern conveniences but still retained the original features.[14] After this death, there were auctions to sell the contents of the castle, which included the usual household effects but also ‘pianofortes’ (plural) and a Bechstein grand piano[15] and a two-manual pipe organ that had 23 stops and three couplers in a mahogany case.[16] The remaining lease of Blackrock Castle was also put up for auction on 20 July 1948 in Cork.

Administration of his estate was granted at Cork to his brother on 26 August 1948. The effects were valued at £834. His library was donated to UCC, a full list is in the donation book there. A search of the UCC online library catalogue for ‘Ex Libris Sperrin-Johnson, Prof. J.C.’ produces 104 titles, mostly of music with some on botanical subjects (including a manuscript of hand-painted New Zealand flowers[17]) and also some relating to archaeology. 


John Charles Johnson entered Queen’s College, Cork, in 1903. During the 1904-05 session, he was a prize winner in Practical Chemistry, in second year Anatomy and Physiology and in Junior Practical Physiology and Histology (all in the Faculty of Medicine).[18]

In the Royal University of Ireland examinations of 1905, John C. Johnson gained First Class Honours in the second examination in Medicine (Autumn) and was named Second Class Exhibitioner. In the 1906-07 session at QCC, he was named as Third Year Scholar in the Faculty of Medicine.[19] He was also awarded a prize in his third year examination in Practical Physiology and Histology (Faculty of Medicine). In the 1907-08 session, there were four Senior Scholars in QCC: Johnson was the Senior Scholar in Biology.[20]

During the 1908-09 academic year, John C. Johnson BA was one of two demonstrators in Physiology at UCC.[21] He was also in that year a Senior Scholar in Chemistry and Experimental Physics and was awarded the Charles Medal in the Faculty of Medicine. In the Faculty of Arts, he won a Second Class Exhibition in the BA examination and gained Second Class Honours in Chemistry and Physiology.

Johnson graduated MA in 1910 from UCC and MSc in 1911 (conferred by President Windle in an extant photo in the UCC University Archives). His MSc thesis ‘An investigation of a growth of bacillus megatherium found on the roots of demonorops and on the contiguous earth’ is available to read in the Boole Library, UCC.[22] He then proceeded to gain a medical degree at UCC, graduating MB BCh BAO in 1913.

He apparently then attended St John’s College, Cambridge, as a graduate student but this is as yet unconfirmed. He may have graduated with a Doctor of Science degree. The online Venn database of Cambridge graduates only goes as far as 1900, thus a separate search of Cambridge archives would have to be made to find out Sperrin Johnson’s history there. However, a search of the Register of twentieth-century Johnians,[23] would be advised. He possibly earned a DLitt from Oxford for folklore [Evening Echo obituary], but this remains to be confirmed.


In 1914 John C. Johnson was appointed Professor of Biology at University College Auckland, New Zealand – now the University of Auckland – where he remained until resigning in 1930 or 1931. Botany and Zoology was a single department of which Sperrin Johnson was the head.

‘For the Chair in botany, out of some excellent applicants, the committee recommended a young man, John C. Johnson (later he changed his name to Sperrin-Johnson), who had a brilliant undergraduate record. He was primarily an economic botanist, but had training and teaching experience in anatomy, physiology and zoology. He had degrees of M.B., B.Ch., as well as M.A. and M.Sc. from the National University of Ireland, and a Cambridge B.A. [Prof. Arthur] Dendy thought that if he chose to specialise in New Zealand botany he should attain great eminence. He failed to do either.’[24]

Not for the first time, an appointment board was wowed by a brilliant academic career but perhaps they should have been suspicious of a candidate that was a jack of all trades and perhaps master of none. As Sinclair points out in history of the University of Auckland, the New Zealand colleges were ‘purely teaching institutions, not centres of research’ and that most of the leading researchers in the country were on the staff of its universities. He notes that only H. B. Kirk, of Victoria, made any useful contribution to zoology or botany. However, the staff pointed out that there were heavy teaching loads at the NZ Colleges. It is interesting to note that the textbooks were Euro-centred and generally published in London. There was certainly room here for someone to make their mark in NZ botany. Until further research is carried out into Sperrin Johnson’s publication or lecture record, it is as yet unclear as to what extent he contributed to the field.

During his time in New Zealand, Sperrin Johnson (then Johnson) was engaged on military service as part of World War One. Further research is required to get the detail of this.

‘Some changes, which began to make the College resemble more closely the modern University, deserve mention. A system of sabbatical leave was introduced in 1925. Sperrin-Johnson, Lamb, Egerton, and a few others took leave abroad. Their leave reports show that they - and the College - benefited greatly from their opportunity to bring themselves up-to-date with work in overseas universities.’[25]

Examination of passenger ship records, etc. might reveal where Sperrin Johnson took his sabbatical leave (he had changed his surname in 1924).

‘Another flaccid area of study was biology. The professor, Sperrin-Johnson, was a wealthy and witty, charming Irish bachelor, an aesthete described by a later Chancellor, Sir Douglas Robb, as ‘eunuchoid’ and by a former student, Raymond Firth, as ‘dandified’. It was said that he would have been a brilliant professor of anything but biology. His main love was music and his piano. He was a keen collector of folk music. He was a qualified medical doctor. […] Sperrin Johnson was perfectly indolent in carrying out his duties and in 1930 he was encouraged by the President to resign. He told his friends that he had ceased teaching and stayed at home to see how long it would be before he was dismissed and claimed that Council did not notice his absence for a month. He returned to Ireland where he became Professor of Botany at Cork.’[26]

Following New Zealand, in 1931-2 he was a volunteer with an archaeological expedition in Palestine at Tell-el ‘Ajjul, under the directorship of Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). Petrie excavated this site between 1930-34 and again in 1938.[27] In one account of the 1931-2 season, Sperrin Johnson is described as ‘an elderly professor of biology from New Zealand’: he was 46.[28] On the expedition, where there were several other volunteers, he was in charge of the clinic and the measuring of any skulls that were found.

Then in 1932 he was appointed Professor of Botany at UCC where he remained until his death in 1948.

Other interests

Music was an important part of his life. While at university in Cork, he was Secretary of the Madrigal Society founded in 1907. He was active in the musical circles in Auckland and even had a grand piano in his study, as remembered by one of his students.[29]

He spoke on ‘Survival in folk-lore music’ at the 4th New Zealand Institute Science Congress in 1929.[30] In 1932 on the suggestion of Baron d’Erlanger, Sperrin Johnson was invited to the First International Congress of Arab Music, but apparently did not attend.[31] It is likely that Sperrin Johnson had made connections during his time in Egypt and the invitation was a result of this.

Following his return to Ireland, Sperrin Johnson appeared on Irish radio on occasion. For example, in 1936 he gave a talk on the birds distinctive to Ireland and those which are common in England but not found in Ireland.[32] Further examination of the radio schedules may be worthwhile to demonstrate the work of this early science communicator. He is described as a keen musician and student of Irish folk song.

Apparently he travelled widely – in the Pacific, North and South America, Africa and the Mediterranean. Certainly during his time at UCC, foreign travel was not that common. His obituary in the Evening Echo stated that he was instrumental in the establishment of a branch of the Catholic Association for International Relations at UCC. Sperrin Johnson was a life member of the Polynesian Society.[33]

In 1932-33 season, he was Vice-President of the UCC Biological Society and after the lecture by H. Newman on snake poisons on January 30 1933, he spoke about his encounters with poisonous snakes,[34] which no doubt seemed exotic at the time. He was appointed the NUI representative in 1935 at the Commonwealth Botanical Congress in London.[35]

During the Second World War, Sperrin Johnson was asked by the Cork Chamber of Commerce to assist British manufacturing chemists in finding sources of dried plants as overseas supplies had ceased owing to the war.[36]

In 1943 he spoke to the UCC Philosophical Society about ‘Shakespeare’s natural history’.[37] John A. Murphy writes that in those ‘pre-specialist days’, it was not unusual for academics to speak on subjects unrelated to their own field.

Select Publications

Notebook for Practical Botany (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1922). Donated by the author J. C. Johnson to UCC Library,

Another edition (Cork: Purcell and Co., 1934)

Last edition (Cork: Purcell & Co., Printers, 1945). Four copies in UCC Library, Special Collections, one of which was donated by the author.

Booklet, Botany Lectures Syllabus, BSc (1948)

‘On well-marked aerotropic growths of bacillus megatherium’, Annals of Botany, 26:3 (July 1912), 949-50

‘A note on bacterial symbiosis’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, 133 (1912), 426-7

‘Observations on Mammalian Erythrocytes’, Parasitology, 6:3 (October 1913), 276-8

‘Formalin as an insecticide’, The Irish Naturalist, 22:1 (January, 1913), 19

‘Recollections of Queen’s College, Cork. 1. Professor J. J. Charles’, Cork University Record 6 (Easter 1946)

‘Recollections of Queen’s College, Cork. 2. Professor Marcus M. Hartog’, Cork University Record 7 (Summer 1946)

Library and Papers

Cork City & County Archives, U165, Canon W. Johnson Notebook, Note book of Canon W. Johnson, P.P. Ballincollig (d. 1973 [sic]). First part contains notes by his brother Prof. Sperrin Johnson, second part contains transcripts and local history notes on various parishes in Cork diocese incl. Succession of priests in 19th century.

UCC, Boole Library, ‘Ex libris Sperrin-Johnson, Prof. J.C.’ [might not include all items]

UCC, Boole Library, Special Collections, U.183 Bound leather volume of manuscripts containing words and music of German, French and Spanish songs at back 1836-53. JBC on gold on spine. Marbled endpaper. Text in both directions. Jane Barbara Codrington bookplate. The vol. is stamped “Presented by the relatives of the late Prof. J.C. Sperrin Johnson.” Date of presentation: 29 Oct 1948.

UCC, Boole Library, Special Collections, various letters were found in books Q+3 (ex libris Sperrin Johnson). Examples include a letter by W. H. Grattan Flood in  a copy of The Story of the Bagpipe by WH Grattan Flood. Another item was in an 18th century copy of Handel’s concertos.

UCC, University Archives, OCLA, various including Governing Body minutes, papers relating to the department of Botany, musical societies, etc.


Photo published in the Cork University Record, vol. 14 (Christmas 1948), p.16.

[1] [accessed 25/05/2020].

[2] South Chapel register, Baptisms I 22.

[3] ‘Notice of change of surname’, Auckland Star, August 1924. Thanks to Dr Eoin Lettice for this reference.

[4] [accessed 25/05/2020].

[5] South Chapel registers, Baptisms Register I 51.

[6] [accessed 25/05/2020].

[7] Census of Ireland, 1901: [accessed 25/05/2020].

[8] Census of Ireland, 1911: [accessed 25/05/2020].

[9] [accessed 25/05/2020].

[10] ‘Late Prof. Sperrin Johnson’, Cork Examiner, May 24 1948, 4.

[11] ‘U.C.C.’s loss. Death of Professor J. C. Sperrin-Johnson’, Evening Echo, 19 May 1948, 2.

[12] ‘Late Prof. Johnson. Final tribute to distinguished Cork man’, Evening Echo, 21 May 1948, 2.

[13] ‘Cork landmark leased’, Irish Independent, 25 October 1934, 7.

[14] Advertisement, Joseph Woodward & Sons, Cork Examiner, 3 July 1948, 4.

[15] Advertisement, Cork Examiner, 12 June 1948, 4.

[16] Auction advertisement, Cork Examiner, 10 July 1948, 4.


[18] Report of the President of Queen’s College, Cork, for the session 1904-05.

[19] Report of the President of Queen’s College, Cork, for the session 1906-1907.

[20] Report of the President of Queen’s College, Cork, for the session 1907-1908.

[21] Report of the President of University College, Cork, for the session 1908-09.

[22] Theses No.1a, also with two journal articles by the author.

[23] St John’s College, Cambridge, Register of twentieth-century Johnians, Volume 1 (1900-1949), by Fiona Colbert (2004, ISBN 978-0950108575.

[24] Keith Sinclair, A history of the University of Auckland (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1983), 80.

[25] Sinclair, History of the University of Auckland, 138.

[26] Keith Sinclair, A history of the University of Auckland (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1983), 130.

[27] Rachael Thyrza Sparks, ‘Flinders Petrie and the archaeology of Palestine‘, in A future for the past: Petrie’s Palestinian collection: essays and exhibition catalogue (first published London: Institute of Archaeology, University of London, 2007; repr. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), chapter 1.

[28] Margaret S. Drower, Flinders Petrie: a life in archaeology ((Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1995), 387.

[29] Prof. E. J. Searle, ‘The thirties and forties’, in R. N. Brothers (ed.), History of Geology at University of Auckland 1883-1983 (1983), 15.

[30] ‘Proceedings’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 38:2 (June 1929), 179.

[31] Israel Katz, Henry George Farmer and the First Congress of Arab Music, Cairo 1932 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 367.

[32] ‘Radio programmes’, Irish Press, 14 January 1936, 5

[33] Journal of the Polynesian Society, 34:3 (September 1925), 276.

[34] Irish Naturalists’ Journal, 4:8 (March 1933), 162.

[35] ‘Universities and Colleges’, British Medical Journal, 1:3864 (January 26, 1935), 185.

[36] John A. Murphy, The College: a history of Queen’s/University College Cork (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 265, citing Cork Examiner, 16 November 1940.

[37] John A. Murphy, The College: a history of Queen’s/University College Cork (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 222, citing Cork Examiner, 25 January 1943.


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