Walter Johnson was a world-renowned scholar of Swedish author August Strindberg, and served as editor of a UW Press series on Strindberg. He served as professor in the UW Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature from 1948 until his death in 1983, and held the position of chairman from 1966 to 1973. Strindberg (1849–1912) is regarded as a leading figure in world literature and Sweden's most influential author. "Internationally, he is known as one of the most important innovators of modern drama," notes Lotta Gavel Adams, an associate professor in the UW Scandinavian department. In addition to his well-known naturalistic plays The Father and Miss Julie, Strindberg also wrote such surrealist dramas as To Damascus, A Dreamplay, and The Ghost Sonata. These plays have had a strong influence on American dramatists Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. "The films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman are unthinkable without Strindberg," emphasizes Gavel Adams.
Johnson opened up new directions for the study of Strindberg's works by making his historical dramas available to an international audience in the 1950s and 1960s. Five volumes including 12 of Strindberg's greatest historical dramas and one monograph, Strindberg and the Historical Drama, were published by the University of Washington Press. Today, this series is known the world over as "The Washington Strindberg."
Although Johnson was an internationally famous scholar, many colleagues point out he never neglected what he saw as his first vocation, that of being a teacher and mentor to his students. There are few, if any, Scandinavian Departments at universities in the U.S. which do not have one of his students in a prominent position. For them he is regarded as a legend. One of his former students, Marilyn Johns Blackwell, of the University of Ohio, writes in the preface of his Festschrift from 1981: "surely no single individual in the history of Scandinavian studies in America has done more to promote the development of our profession than Professor Johnson."
In addition to his extensive scholarly achievements, Johnson presided over a period of considerable expansion of the department at the UW. The year after he became chairman, Johnson established a new Ph.D. program. He enhanced the national and international reputation of the program by bringing a series of prominent visiting scholars to campus throughout the 1970s. Furthermore, it was during Johnson's tenure that a chair in Danish studies was established (see Sven H. Rossel: Knighted for Contributions to Danish Studies), while enrollments boomed.
By the time Johnson retired in 1973, the department had grown from two full-time faculty members to six. Shortly after his retirement, Johnson was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala for his outstanding contributions to Swedish studies in North America.
Johnson was twice awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship during his career. He served as managing editor of Scandinavian Studies from 1949 to 1969, and was a member of the editorial board and book review editor of the Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly from 1964 to 1983.
Johnson was honored with the Swedish Order of the North Star in 1962. He received Gold Medal awards from the Swedish Academy (1972) and from the American-Scandinavian Foundation (1980). He was a member of the Norwegian- American Historical Association, the Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, the Strindberg Society, and the Nordic Heritage Museum, among other professional activities.