A Hero on Mount St. Helens

The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston
Author: Melanie Holmes
Foreword by Jeff Renner
A geologist, a volcano, and a historic disaster
Paper – $19.95
eBook – $14.95
Publication Date
Paperback: 05/18/2019
Cloth: 05/18/2019
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About the Book

Serendipity placed David Johnston on Mount St. Helens when the volcano rumbled to life in March 1980. Throughout that ominous spring, Johnston was part of a team conducting scientific research that underpinned warnings about the mountain. Those warnings saved thousands of lives when the most devastating volcanic eruption in U.S. history blew apart Mount St. Helens but killed Johnston on the ridge that now bears his name.

Melanie Holmes tells the story of Johnston's journey from a nature-loving Boy Scout to a committed geologist. Blending science with personal detail, Holmes follows Johnston through his encounters with Aleutian volcanoes, his work helping the Portuguese government assess the geothermal power of the Azores, and his dream job as a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Interviews and personal writings reveal what a friend called “the most unjaded person I ever met,” an imperfect but kind and intelligent young scientist passionately in love with his life and work and determined to make a difference.

About the Author

Melanie Holmes graduated from St. Xavier University in Chicago. She is the author of The Female Assumption, recipient of a 2014 Global Media Award from the Population Institute. She is also a speaker, educator, and freelance writer.


"Filled with tender mercies that show the heart and humanism of those whose passion sends them into peril in the name of science." --Daily Southtown

"Overall, A Hero on Mount St. Helens is an opportunity for the public to understand through David Johnston’s life what a geologist truly does and the passion they hold for not only the field itself, but the communities affected by such geological processes" --NAGT's In the Trenches

"Highly recommended." --Choice

"An excellent biography. . . . This book is a great read." --The Daily Chronicle


"A well-balanced and authentic view of David—where he came from, who he was, what the influences on his worldview were, and especially his sense of urgency about the unfolding situation at Mount St. Helens in spring 1980. Volcanoes are complex features; Melanie Holmes explains scientific ideas in a clear, straightforward manner that makes them more accessible to a broad, nonspecialist audience."--Tom Casadevall, former acting director for the U.S. Geological Survey

"Read this book--you will receive an excellent and understandable description of a volcanic eruption and a moving chronicle of the making of a geologist from a boy to a man."--Vicki S. McConnell, former State Geologist of Oregon

"In this compelling book about volcanologist David Johnston, Melanie Holmes takes the reader from the cold war and Vietnam days of Midwest America to the short fuse lit in 1980 under Mount St. Helens. Dave’s story is well worth telling, and Holmes does so with skill, honesty, and concern for accuracy."--Barry Voight, Penn State University

"The intertwined personal life of David Johnston with Mount St. Helens geology and the challenges of dangerous research have, in this story, produced an incredibly engaging saga. A beautiful tribute to a scientist and to science."--Robbie Rice Gries, author of Anomalies: Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology: 1917–2017 and president of the Geological Society of America

"Anyone who aspires to be a scientist or is curious about the wonder and fury of volcanoes will be inspired and mesmerized by Dave's story of courage and selflessness in the pursuit of knowledge to protect all of us from harm."--Christine McEntee, CEO/Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union

"This wonderful book has several subjects; volcanology, natural disasters and human behavior, heroism, and the life of one particular man. This is an engrossing read that is absorbingly suspenseful, despite the fact that readers know the outcome. David Johnston, the hero of the story, is a multi-dimensional, complex character. Holmes shows an understanding of human psychology and has a gift for evoking personality with a few verbal gestures. We come to know David Johnston and the part he plays in the human drama surrounding Mount St. Helens. Unforgettable."--Mary V. Dearborn, author of Ernest Hemingway: A Biography

"David Johnston was a young man who explored; he wanted to know more. He died in the service of that knowledge--nothing less than a hero in this regard. There have been a number of memorials, all fine and well-deserved. None is better than this book. It finds a fascinating story. It tells the story well. And nothing more could a reader wish."--Zay N. Smith, former Chicago Sun-Times columnist, award-winning journalist, and coauthor of The Mirage