Irving Johnson was born in 1925. He grew up in the Midwest, mostly Kansas and Colorado, where his father was a civil engineer who laid out roads in those states. When Johnson turned 18, the country was in the midst of the war. He thought of enlisting, but instead was directed to the V-12 program set up by the Navy. This special program was intended to train future naval officers. They selected bright men graduating from high school and sent them through an accelerated college program. The Navy routed Johnson through a series of schools: Westminster College in Missouri, where he began his studies, Cornell University for midshipman school, Harvard University for communications school, and a brief tour of duty on a carrier in the Pacific. The Navy discharged him in 1945, when the war was over.
Johnson finished his undergraduate education at Washburn University, in Topeka Kansas, in 1948. He wanted to enroll in medical school, but found the competition stiff, with many servicemen having a similar idea. Instead, Johnson chose to pursue a PhD in Developmental Biology at the University of Kansas.
Johnson’s PhD research was on the molecular basis of the beating heart. He tried to pinpoint which proteins in a developing chick embryo were necessary, and which were unnecessary, for the chick’s heart to start beating.
His first job after finishing his PhD was at Eli Lilly. He joined the company in 1958 and began working under Clyde Culbertson. Culbertson was a physician who was at the time trying to mass produce the polio virus. Johnson’s first project at Lilly was to grow large vats of polio virus.