Gaston-Johansson, the first African-American woman to be a tenured full professor at The Johns Hopkins University, was born in Hickory, North Carolina. She earned her B.S. in nursing from the Winston-Salem State University in 1959, her M.S.N. in medical, surgical, and psychiatric nursing from the University of California, San Francisco in 1963, and her Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden in 1985.
Gaston-Johansson began her professional career as a staff nurse in 1959, working at Veterans Administration hospitals in New York, Texas, and California. In 1964, she joined the faculty at San Francisco State University as instructor and chair of the curriculum committee. She took a one-year leave of absence in 1966 to study at the University of Uppsala in Sweden before returning to Winston-Salem State University as assistant professor in nursing and chair of the curriculum committee in 1967.
In 1970, Gaston-Johansson returned to Sweden as a staff nurse in the thoracic surgery and coronary care unit of University Hospital in Gothenburg. The next year, she accepted a position in the general medical surgical units and thorax, which she held until 1973. Gaston-Johansson was appointed an assistant professor at Quinsigamon College in 1974 for one year before taking a position as clinical instructor of students at Sahlgrens Hospital and Vasa Hospital at the University of Gothenburg. In 1977, Gaston-Johansson became faculty and head teacher at the School of Nursing, Vardskolan Annedal. She returned to the University of Gothenburg in 1979 as a study leader in the department of nursing. In 1983, she became a member of the board of hospital administration group there.
Gaston-Johansson returned to the United States in 1985, as assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and was promoted to associate professor the next year. She held this position until 1993. She also served as director of nursing research in clinical practice at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in the Nursing Department/Nursing Administration from 1987 to 1989, and was responsible for the development and management of the research program at the hospital. In 1990, Gaston-Johansson was selected to coordinate and chair the task force for the Robert Wood Johnson project, for which a grant of $50,000 was awarded to plan a creative and innovative program for improving patient care. The program was a success and she was promoted in 1991 to Director of Nursing Research and Quality Improvement responsible for Advanced Nursing Practice. She also served as a visiting professor at University of Gothenburg in June, 1988.
Gaston-Johansson joined the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in 1993 as the Elsie M. Lawler Chair in Research with the rank of associate professor and was also Director, Post Masters Nurse Practitioner Program. In 1995, she was promoted to Director of International and Extramural Academic Programs and served as a visiting professor at the University of Washington. Gaston-Johansson received a joint appointment in oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1997, and in 1998 was made a full professor in the school of nursing. In 1999, she returned to University of Gothenburg as a visiting professor and was promoted to full professor there in 2000. While there, Gaston-Johansson helped develop an academic nursing program in doctoral education and was named dean in 2001. She served in that position until 2005 while maintaining her appointments at Johns Hopkins. In 2007, she was named the inaugural chair of the acute and chronic care department in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. While at Johns Hopkins, she led the Minority Global Health Disparities Research Training (MHIRT) Program. Gaston-Johansson directed the Center on Health Disparities Research, which works to advance understanding of health disparities across the lifespan. Her research focused on end-of-life issues with an emphasis on strategies to manage pain and other symptoms in patients with terminal or chronic illnesses. Her research also focused on developing a coping strategy program for treatment of women with breast cancer.
Gaston-Johansson is a two-time recipient of the Johns Hopkins Diversity and Recognition Award. She was named to the Maryland Task Force on Health Care Access and Reimbursement, and is the recipient of the National Black Nurses Association’s Trailblazer Award. Gaston-Johansson was recognized as a Living Legend in Nursing by the American Academy of Nursing in 1995 for her outstanding accomplishments in nursing. She received citations from the U.S. Congress and the government of Sweden for her international and domestic research endeavors. In 2011, she was the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society Inductee into the International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame. Gaston-Johansson has written over 100 articles and book chapters and has served on the editorial board of Journal of Clinical Nursing, and Journal of Nursing.