Dorothy E. Johnson was born on August 21, 1919 in Savannah, Georgia. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 1942 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1948, she received her Master's degree from Harvard University. During her career, Johnson was an assistant professor of pediatric nursing, an associate professor of nursing, and a professor of nursing at the University of California in Los Angeles. She retired in 1978.