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Johns Hopkins was born on this day, May 19, 1795. A Marylander, his Quaker parents lived out their religious beliefs by freeing their slaves. This cost them greatly and led them to put their son into their tobacco fields at age 12, ending his formal education. Yet, Johns Hopkins not only overcame the economic disadvantages imposed on him by his parents, but also overcame the natural human impulse to hate the “other,” the people with darker skin who society and his personal experience would tell him to blame. From a poor start in his parents’ tobacco fields, after transplantation to the merchantile field, Johns Hopkins blossomed into a business leader, then grew other businesses through investment, finally creating seedbeds from which amazing new ideas bloomed.
Johns Hopkins started life with a very unusual first name. As Johns Hopkins Medicine explains:
Johns Hopkins’ peculiar first name was simply a family affair; it had been his great-grandmother’s maiden name.
His great-grandmother was Margaret Johns, the daughter of Richard Johns, owner of a 4,000-acre estate in Calvert County, Maryland. Margaret Johns married Gerard Hopkins in 1700; one of their children was named Johns Hopkins. The second Johns Hopkins, grandson of the first, was born in 1795 on his family’s tobacco plantation in southern Maryland.
Ambitious and hardworking, he abandoned farming, and, at his mother’s urging, became an apprentice in his uncle’s wholesale grocery business when he was seventeen. Within a decade, he had created his own Baltimore-based mercantile operation. Hopkins single-mindedly pursued his business ventures. He never married, lived frugally, and retired a rich man at age fifty. A series of wise investments over the next two decades—he was the largest individual stockholder in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, for example—further increased his wealth. He used his fortune to found Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, incorporating them in 1867.
Hopkins died in 1873. His will divided $7 million equally between the hospital and the university. At the time, the gift was the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history. Hopkins also endowed an orphanage for African-American children.
So, a young man, whose parents’ decisions would seem to have fated him to become a modest businessman, defied both the odds and human nature. Johns Hopkins became a captain of industry, who helped make America great in the world. He advocated for abolition of slavery and supported Abraham Lincoln. Johns Hopkins died as Reconstruction was dying, yet had it in his heart to endow an orphanage for children representing the source of his childhood field labor and lack of formal education.
Contemplating Johns Hopkins’ life calls to mind the 2019 Hillsdale College commencement address by General Robert B. Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps. In it, General Neller made three points about a successful life: effort is required, you must persevere in the face of adversity, and character counts. Johns Hopkins applied himself from his earliest days, only changing his fields of endeavor over time. He persevered in the face of early adversity and through a lifetime without material advantage given him. His character shone through in both his life and in his will.
Johns Hopkins could have let his heart be taken over by weeds of resentment, bearing bitter fruit of hatred against his parents and the population associated with the slaves they freed. He could have let material ambition grow until it crowded out any sense of duty to God and to his neighbors. Instead, his works show a life of careful cultivation leading to continuously growing harvests.
Johns Hopkins carefully planned and provided for a way to give to many in America an education denied to him. He put his money, as it grew, into other young men with ideas, realizing a fine return on each investment. In the end, he amassed a fortune of around $8 million (1873 value). Hopkins’s wealth at the time of his death was 9% of GDP.
From the early days of his career, Johns Hopkins had looked upon his wealth as a trust to benefit future generations. He is said to have told his gardener that, “like the man in the parable, I have had many talents given to me and I feel they are in trust. I shall not bury them but give them to the lads who long for a wider education.”
His seed money, carefully planted and tended by a board of trustees he selected, blossomed into vast fields of brilliant ideas.
Johns Hopkins University opened February 22, 1876. Hopkins’ first President, Dr. Daniel Coit Gilman, set a new standard for higher education by focusing on ground-breaking research and advanced study. [LOC]
This helped set America on a course to challenge Prussia and the nascent German nation. The states that would become Germany were the heart of scientific inquiry and advancement through the early 1930s, until the poison of European hatred of Jews was given its fullest expression. Yet, the upstarts in the New World were set on course to win the intellectual and industrial race. This particularly American course was also set in medicine, in important part thanks to Johns Hopkins.
Johns Hopkins Hospital opened in 1889, and the medical school opened four years later. Here too, rigorous academic standards and an emphasis on scientific research profoundly influenced medical practice in the United States. [LOC]
Johns Hopkins was trained up by his Quaker parents, and did not depart from the way they had taught. He stood for Abolition in a time and place where it was not favored. He did well by doing good, and amassed a great fortune without becoming money’s servant. The seeds he planted have germinated, produced great blooms, and multiplied over the century and a half since his passing.