By Staff Writer Joseph Collins
220 years ago this week, Johns Hopkins was born – American innovator, abolitionist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. And while many are familiar with the institutions that bear his name (Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins Hospital) not everyone is familiar with the inspiring and big-hearted man who founded them.
Johns Hopkins was a 19th century visionary whose compassion and pursuit of social justice drove him to great accomplishments. He is a man whose lasting impact on our society is worth remembering.
Hopkins didn’t just grow up to become one of our nation’s richest men (the 69th wealthiest American of all time). He was also a champion of the poor and a prominent voice calling for the emancipation of slaves. And of course, Hopkins’ vision for a better world extended to hospital care. He believed that hospitals should be free and emergency services should be offered to everyone, regardless of sex, color, or economic status.
A FORMATIVE CHILDHOOD
Johns Hopkins, one of eleven children, was born on May 19, 1795 into a wealthy tobacco plantation family in Baltimore, Maryland. They were also members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), which, as a matter of religious conscience, obligated them to free their slaves. They did so in 1807, a move that would influence Hopkins’ philosophy throughout his life.
Though some liberated farm hands continued to work the plantation under their own free will, a shortage of help required Hopkins, who was only twelve at the time, to lend a hand in doing farm chores. It was hard, but character–building work. Five years later, in 1812, at the age of seventeen, he left the plantation to work in his Uncle Gerard’s wholesale grocery business. When his uncle was called away to serve in the War of 1812, Hopkins was left in charge of the store, giving him valuable business experience. Within seven years, he set out to embark on business ventures of his own.
A SELF-MADE MAN
In 1819, Hopkins and three of his brothers started Hopkins & Brothers Wholesalers, selling various products to nearby communities. Due to the hard work and ambition of Hopkins, the business was successful. After a while, Hopkins branched out to become involved in other financial opportunities. He was ahead of his time in seeing the impact that railroads would have on society, and he became director of the B&O Railroad in 1847. He also went on to become President of the Merchants Bank, as well as director of various other organizations. His ambitions served him well, and by 1847 – at the age of 52 – he had already amassed enough wealth to allow him to retire and pursue his philanthropic calling.
CIVIL WAR SUPPORT
As the Civil War began, Hopkins was firm in his support of President Lincoln and his vision for ending slavery. The roots of his commitment to emancipation began, of course, in his Quaker upbringing. But it was more than his childhood experience that influenced him. Before the war, Hopkins had also worked closely with two of America’s most famous abolitionists, Myrtilla Miner and Henry Ward Beecher, both of whom would have a lasting impression on his viewpoint.
Despite the fact that some Marylanders were unsympathetic to the Union’s cause, Hopkins never wavered on his position, and even wrote Lincoln a letter encouraging him to ignore his critics and to continue to use Maryland as a base of operations. In addition, Hopkins also offered financial and logistical support to Lincoln, including letting him use the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for free. Hopkins, by all accounts, was quite committed to the cause.
A CHAMPION FOR EQUALITY AND JUSTICE
After the Civil War ended, Hopkins continued his crusade for equality, determined to use his abundant wealth for the public good. Despite being criticized by many prominent people, Hopkins set about establishing three major institutions: 1) a hospital that would serve everyone, including people of color; 2) a university; and 3) an orphanage that specifically catered to African-American children orphaned by the war. A Baltimore journalist praised Hopkins for being a “man beyond his times who knew no race.”
Baltimore had great need for free hospitals, too, as repeated outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera had ravaged the city on numerous occasions. Being well aware of this, Hopkins set aside $7 million in 1870 for the incorporation of his hospital and orphanage, as well as for affiliated training schools for both doctors and nurses.
The results of his generosity were the establishment of some of the finest medical and learning institutions in the world. Among his most important institutions were the following: Johns Hopkins Colored Children Orphan Asylum (1875); Johns Hopkins University (1876); the Johns Hopkins Press, the longest continuously operating academic press in America, (1878); the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins School of Nursing (1889); the Johns Hopkins University of School of Medicine (1893); and the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health (1916).
It’s an impressive legacy that has grown into ten divisions, with campuses in Maryland and Washington D.C., as well as international centers in Italy, China and Singapore, all operating under the philosophy of equality and opportunity for all.
Hopkins also supported equal opportunity for women. When the daughters of the trustees of Hopkins University raised and donated funds to help open the Hopkins Nursing School, Hopkins fully supported their demands that women be admitted, as well as men. The nursing school opened in 1889, and as of 2010, the undergrad population was just about 50% female.
AN INSPIRING LEGACY
Johns Hopkins passed away on December 24th, 1873, Christmas Eve, leaving behind a remarkable and progressive legacy. He was honored in 1989, when the U.S. Postal Service issued a $1 stamp commemorating him as part of their Great Americans Series – a deserving tribute.
Despite his great wealth, Hopkins was never greedy or selfish with his money. From early on, he looked upon his affluence as something to benefit others and future generations. His Quaker faith and early experiences, especially the emancipation of the slaves from his parent’s farm, helped form the altruistic and generous man he would become later in life. In fact, the contribution he made to his university was the largest philanthropic donation made to an educational institution at the time.
Amazingly, Hopkins also left in his will provisions for scholarships for the poor and for orphanages other than his own, as well as for institutions for invalids, the mentally ill, and the elderly. His actions clearly demonstrate that his concern for his fellow Americans knew no bounds.
A ROLE MODEL FOR OUR TIMES
With his compassion, generosity, and strong sense of equality, Johns Hopkins serves as an excellent role model for all of us – but especially for the most fortunate and wealthiest among us, who far too often get caught up in their own ambition and self-interest.
Despite the claim of many cynics, great wealth does not inevitably lead to corruption. In fact, as Hopkins’ example shows, if the person has a strong set of values and an empathetic heart, prosperity can become a powerful tool for improving society, helping the needy, and establishing bold institutions that advance the cause of social justice.