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Alexander Johnston was born in Webb, Saskatchewan on January 26, 1920. He graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in 1941, and was employed by the Lethbridge Experimental Farm. After serving in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, he completed a Masters of Science at the University of Montana in 1954. Dr. Johnston then returned to Lethbridge to work as a Research Scientist at the Canada Agriculture Research Station, where he served until his retirement in 1981.
Dr. Johnston’s research activity was in the field of range management. His studies of the effects of cattle grazing on the vast natural grasslands of Alberta led to the development of new management techniques, designed to maintain this vital natural resource for the benefit of all Albertans
Dr. Johnston’s research results were published in more than 100 scientific and popular articles. He was highly regarded by cattle producers, land administrators and wildlife supporters for his sound approach to resource management.
His success in interpreting and applying research results gave him an international reputation and recognition as a leading authority on range management in North America. He acted as an advisor on range research across the Canadian Prairies, the Yukon, Newfoundland and Pakistan.
From October 1961 to November 1962 Dr. Johnston fulfilled an assignment as range improvement advisor to the Government of West Pakistan. He travelled extensively in Pakistan, India and Iran and developed an intimate knowledge of the local problems of range livestock production. He classified the grass cover of the country, consolidated the available information on range management, and prepared a Handbook of Range Research for West Pakistan. In recognition of his contribution, he was given a special award by the Secretary of Agriculture for West Pakistan.
Dr. Johnston also studied the history of agricultural development in Western Canada. This study contributed greatly to the formulation of recommendations for agricultural practices that would avoid or correct mistakes of the past. His talent for recognizing and relating significant historical events gained him a reputation as one of Alberta’s finest amateur historians.
He was actively involved with the Alberta Historical Society and served on the Public Advisory Committee on the Conservation of Historical and Archeological Resources, the Historic Sites Advisory Committee, the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation and the Alberta Museums Association.
Dr. Johnston concentrated his efforts on the history of Southern Alberta. He was able to find traces of the old Whoop-Up Trail, and by following up on this he became an expert in locating the various camps and forts of the American whiskey traders. He wrote about Southern Alberta’s whiskey trade, the Indian Battle at the Belly River, the Blackfoot Indian utilization of the flora of the Northwestern Great Plains, the Horses of the Blackfoot, Indian lore, and the history of the rangelands of Western Canada.
He was a recognized authority on the historical use of native plants by Canadian Aboriginal. In acknowledgement of his contribution to the recording of Aboriginal history, he was inducted as an Honorary Indian Chief into the Kainai Chieftainship and given the name of Rainy Chief (Sotaina).
Dr. Johnston was a fellow of the Agricultural Institute of Canada, a fellow of the Society of Range Management, and an honourary life member of the Western Stock Growers Association. In 1976 he was awarded an honourary doctorate (LL.D.) from the University of Lethbridge.