Adam Johnson's brilliant mind was surpassed only by his spirit

In his mid-20s, Adam Johnson had a major breakthrough on the brain. In his mid-30s, he had a breakthrough on the meaning of life.

In his mid-20s, Adam Johnson had a major breakthrough on the brain. In his mid-30s, he had a breakthrough on the meaning of life. Adam Johnson (submitted)

Carrie Peffley hadn’t planned to spend all of a December 2011 day with Adam Johnson. It just happened.

Johnson, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Bethel University, had joined Peffley’s philosophy class on a field trip to a neo-gothic cathedral. They took the students out for lunch. Then they carpooled to another professor’s housewarming.

Johnson confessed to Peffley he didn’t want to be alone. She brought him back to her place, offering eggnog and company. “This is really inconvenient,” he told her, “but I think I like you.”

The next day, Johnson, then 31 and divorced with two young daughters, had surgery to remove a section of his colon riddled with cancerous tumors. The procedure was a success. Johnson and Peffley started dating.

He was unlike anyone she’d ever known. Smarter — more brilliant, even, than the people she met in grad school at Cambridge — but also bolder, and humbler. Over beers at the Blue Door Pub, Johnson would stun Bethel colleagues into silence, posing simple questions that exposed some profound mystery.

“He did that answering questions, too,” Peffley says. “He’d throw out any bullshit explanation — if it stuck, great.”

While a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Johnson studied the brains of lab rats running through mazes. At the suggestion of his adviser, David Redish, he linked sensors to the hippocampus, a part of the brain used for memory and navigation.

One day, Johnson came into Redish’s office. “Dave,” he told his skeptical adviser, “my rats are doing mental time-travel.” When faced with a decision of turning left or right in the maze, a subject’s mind will, in effect, “see” around each corner, imagining what they’ll find there. In neuroscience, the finding was a mini-breakthrough; cracks rippled from the point of impact like a rock hitting a windshield.

Sometimes, after a beer, Johnson made a sheepish reference to his being “lucky” once when he was a grad student. More often, he called himself the “village idiot,” just dumb enough to question everything.

When Johnson applied to teach at Bethel, a small evangelical school with no neuroscience department, psychology department chair Joel Frederickson assumed he was “practicing” for other interviews. Then he read Johnson’s 15-page answer to a question on integrating religious faith and his academic discipline, a “wonderfully sophisticated” essay about “memory, and spatial awareness, science, the pursuit of truth.”

Fredrickson thinks Johnson, who grew up in a conservative religious household and went to a small, in-state school (Mankato State), wanted to mentor kids with similar backgrounds. At Bethel, he found many. They adored him.

Once, when Luke Arend encountered a problem, Johnson told the freshman student not to worry, he’d compile the data for him. How did he want it back?

“[Johnson] had a particular view of science,” says Arend of the "insane generosity" he witnessed routinely. “He saw it as a family.”

Johnson had a reputation for his temper. Peffley learned these “rants” were rarely about something that happened to him. He raged against injustice — a boss’ bad treatment of a colleague, misogyny he saw at Bethel — suffered by people without power. His classes researched whether a male-centric “testosterone Gospel” made it easier to think rape victims had it coming. He lectured at churches about how drug addicts are just rational actors whose imaginations assigned insufficient value to paying the rent.

“He put an asshole veneer over top of how sweet he was,” Peffley says."He was just the sweetest, most caring person."

In 2012, after 18 cancer-free months, doctors found tumors in Johnson’s liver and lungs. They gave him a year, maybe two. Johnson told Peffley she had no obligation to stay with a dying man. Within a couple months, they were married.

“I definitely wanted to take care of him,” Carrie says, citing Bethel rules requiring they be married before living together. She moved in to help with the girls, prepared to watch Adam die. Instead she saw him live. Johnson kept right on teaching, mentoring, keeping appointments with friends. Nine months after his diagnosis he joined her to run a 10-mile race.

They gave joint lectures to nursing students on end-of-life medical decisions. Adam did the statistics and probability side, Peffley did the philosophical. Embrace ambiguity, they told them. You can never know if you’re making the right decision.

Adam had become his own lab rat, trying to see around corners.

That research continued, too. Luke Horstman, then a student assistant, recalls working with Johnson while chemotherapy chemicals pumped into Johnson's arm. Johnson said he was looking forward to getting revenge on mosquitoes. Horstman didn't get it.

“With all this poison in my veins,” Johnson said, “any mosquito that bites me will surely die.”

After Horstman graduated in 2016, he worried about the fate of his mentor. And yet, it was Johnson who wrote little notes, emails to students, asking how they were faring out there in the world.

Late that year Johnson developed a fever and chest pains. For the first time, it wasn’t the chemotherapy causing pain and weakness, it was the cancer. It was spreading.

Though Johnson continued teaching, he faded. Colleagues and friends made pilgrimages to Johnson’s home, arriving with a six-pack of beer and something heady to read or discuss. Luke Arend returned from M.I.T. to thank his mentor and say goodbye. Arend asked Johnson if he was afraid.

“Death is simply a curtain,” Johnson told him. “No one who’s gone through has come back to tell us what’s on the other side.”

Tumors attacked his formidable brain. One grew on Johnson’s hippocampus, where he housed and accessed memories of a life of service. Johnson started having hallucinations. The most common vision he saw was Carrie, or his daughters. He worried about leaving them.

Johnson died April 10. He was 39.

At a memorial service at Bethel, Carrie noticed that "not one of Adam's students, but all of them" were changed just by being around him. "Adam let them know him well."

In death, Adam will still teach, and perhaps solve one last mystery. He donated his body, so students could study and learn from it.

“I’m so proud of him,” Carrie says.


Read Adam Johnson's 2017 essay about living and dying with cancer.