GM’s Betsy Ancker-Johnson, acclaimed scientist, leaves behind legacy of firsts

Forty-one years ago, acclaimed scientist Betsy Ancker-Johnson attended her first meeting in the General Motors boardroom as the Detroit automaker’s vice president for environmental activities.

It was 1979, and “the gentlemen were all walking on eggshells,” she recalled two decades later in an interview with Automotive News.

It was a public policy planning meeting, and there was an established order — unknown to her at the time — to how to enter the room.

“The chairman and president came in and sat down, then the others followed,” she said. “But many of the gentlemen were still outside, urging me to go in ahead of them. I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘I’m not going along with this baloney.’ ”

Ancker-Johnson died July 2 in Austin, Texas. She was 93.

As GM’s first female vice president, she was subsequently handed two of the industry’s most controversial areas to oversee at the time: environmental compliance and vehicle safety.

During her tenure, she was responsible for the emission control and safety of the automaker’s products and for the control of pollution generated by its factories. She oversaw nearly 200 plants worldwide and represented the automaker in Washington, turning up the volume on environmental and safety issues, including fuel economy compliance and product noise control, during a time when government officials and industry executives showed vague interest or urgency.

“I’ll never forget going down to NHTSA to call to its attention data we had that small children were being harmed by airbags,” she told Automotive News in 1999. “GM had its own insurance company, and we could collect very accurate data about what happened in accidents. But NHTSA just sloughed us off.”

Ancker-Johnson retired from GM in 1992. But throughout her many-faceted career, which included teaching college-level electrical engineering and research at a plasma physics lab run by Boeing, she had picked up a few other “firsts.”

She was the only female student in the physics department when she earned a Ph.D. from Germany’s University of Tübingen in 1953. Twenty years later, she was the first woman appointed by then-President Richard Nixon to serve as assistant secretary for science and technology within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Ancker-Johnson published more than 70 scientific papers and patents and earned many awards and fellowships from the Society of Automotive Engineers — now called SAE International — the National Academy of Engineering and other organizations.

“I’ve been told repeatedly that I was the first woman in the industry to become a vice president,” she said. “It came up at my retirement dinner from GM, and I had to tell them all that I’d much rather be remembered for being competent and making a contribution.”

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