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BETSY ANCKER-JOHNSON (1927–2020)
NAE election, 1975; citation: “Management of engineering and scientific efforts focused on human needs.”
Following her study of instabilities in plasmas in solids (e.g., pinching, oscillatory behavior), Betsy Ancker-Johnson observed microwave emission from an electron-hole plasma, initiated only by the application of an external electric field (1967), the first such observation. Her work in this area led to findings that solid state plasmas can serve as microwave sources of radiation. Among her patents was the invention of a gigacycle range signal generator, which produces repeating and nonrepeating electronic signals used, for example, in microwaves.
During her varied career she worked at UC Berkeley, RCA (where she was laid off when they discovered she was pregnant), the University of Washington, Boeing Science Research Laboratories, Bell Labs, and Argonne National Laboratory.
In 1973 Ancker-Johnson was the first woman appointed by a president to a federal agency, when she was named assistant secretary for science and technology at the Department of Commerce; President Richard Nixon appointed her, and she continued to serve under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. With oversight of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) and the Patent Office, she was in charge of 7500 employees and an annual budget of $230 million, she studied alternative energy sources, pushed for more efficient household appliances and faster processing of patent filings, lobbied Congress for legislation for the United States to adopt the metric system, and advocated for DNA research, which eventually led to the Genome Project in 1990.
When she left the DOC in 1979 she became the first woman vice president in the automotive industry, at General Motors. In 1980 she instituted the first local area network for business use, which in turn led to creation of the first computerized database of technical standards of all countries, facilitating international trade in auto parts.
Among her honors in addition to election to the NAE, she was a fellow of the American Physical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Society of Automotive Engineers, and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She was selected in 1986 for the Chairman's Award of the American Association of Engineering Societies.
After her retirement from GM in 1992 she took up competitive swimming and at age 80 placed 3rd in the 2008 World Masters Championships at Perth in the 800m freestyle.
She married Harold Hunt (Hal) Johnson and they raised four children: Ruth, David, Paul, and Martha.
Education: BA with high honors in physics, Wellesley College, 1949, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi; PhD in physics, magna cum laude, University of Tübingen, 1953.