Betsy Ancker-Johnson was born on 29 April 1927 in St. Louis, MO. She attended Wellesley College and received her B.A. in 1949. In 1953, she received her Ph.D. in physics from Tuebingen University, Germany.
Her early contributions to the study of the instabilities that can occur in plasmas in solids, such as pinching (1963) and oscillatory behavior (1962), culminated in her observation of microwave emission from an electron-hole plasma (1967). The latter is the first observation of microwave emission without the presence of an external field, but initiated only by the application of an external electric field. These non-equilibrium processes in solid state plasmas occur at higher plasma density than are usually studied in dilute gaseous plasmas. Ancker-Johnson’s work in this area leads to subsequent findings that solid-state plasmas can serve as microwave sources of radiation.
Betsy Ancker-Johnson has written over seventy scientific papers, and has patents in solid state physics, microwave electronics, and controlled thermonuclear fusion. In 1973, Ancker-Johnson became the first female Presidential appointee in the U.S. Department of Commerce when she took on the role of Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology. In 1975, she became the fourth woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. In addition, Ancker-Johnson was named Vice President of General Motors’ Environmental Activity Staff in 1979, which marks the first time a woman was named to the position of vice president in the U.S. auto industry.
Ancker-Johnson is a Fellow of the IEEE “For contributions to the understanding of plasmas in solids and to the development of governmental science policy.” She holds a number of honorary degrees.
Betsy Ancker-Johnson retired from General Motors in 1992.