American financier and philanthropist Johns Hopkins (1795-1873) was the founder of Baltimore, Maryland's Johns Hopkins University, as well as a free hospital to serve the people of the city where he spent his life.
American philanthropist Johns Hopkins made a fortune in banking and real estate by recognizing that Baltimore, Maryland, had a future as a commercial center. Increasing his wealth further by investing in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and inspired by the example of friend and philanthropist George Peabody, Hopkins donated sufficient funds to establish a university and a hospital, both of which bear his name.
From Farm to Baltimore
Johns Hopkins was born May 19, 1795, on his grandparents' 500-acre tobacco plantation in Maryland's Anne Arundel County. He was the second of eleven children born to Samuel and Hannah (Janney) Hopkins. His great grandmother, Margaret Johns, who married into the Hopkins family in 1700, came from a good family that owned a large estate in Maryland's Calvert County, and Hopkins was the second relative to be given his unusual first name in her family's honor, the other being his father's father. The Hopkins family had lived in Maryland since the mid-1600s.
As a boy, Hopkins studied at nearby South River school, where he was taught by a young Oxford University graduate. When he was 12, his grandfather, the first-named Johns Hopkins, a prominent Quaker and a member of the West River Meeting of Friends, decided to act according to his moral beliefs and free the slaves working his land. With no one else to harvest the cotton crop, the task was left to Samuel Hopkins; he pulled young Johns and his older son out of school and quickly trained the boys as field hands. For the remainder of his life, Hopkins regretted the fact that he never finished his education.
When he reached age 17, Hopkins left the family farm and moved to Baltimore, where he was employed by his uncle, Gerard T. Hopkins, to learn the wholesale grocery business. Two years later, in 1814, Gerard Hopkins was forced to leave the business in his nephew's hands when he was called west to Ohio on business. Gone for several months, Uncle Gerard returned to find that young Johns had kept things running smoothly.
A Head for Business
While Hopkins learned a great deal working alongside his uncle, he was also frustrated by the elder man's rigid and old-fashioned attitudes and unwillingness to modernize some of his business practices. This rigidness was especially counterproductive, it seemed to Hopkins, during the financial upheaval that occurred in 1819 and which caused many cash-poor customers to ask to exchange their personal stock of home-brewed whiskey for food. While the young Hopkins had no problem with such a barter arrangement, his Quaker uncle balked at contributing to the use of strong drink.
Sensing an opportunity, 24-year-old Hopkins decided to go into business for himself. His maternal uncle, John Janney, invested $10,000 toward his nephew's wholesale grocery business, and Hopkins's mother also advanced her son an equal sum. Amenable to exchanging corn whiskey for groceries, the young entrepreneur soon drew customers to his door. Although he was banned from Quaker Meeting for a time, in his first year alone Hopkins and partner Benjamin P. Moore sold $200,000 worth of merchandise.
The partnership between Hopkins and Moore broke up in 1813. After convincing younger brothers Philip and Mahlon to join him in Baltimore, Hopkins changed the name of his firm to Hopkins & Brothers, and soon the brothers had spread their business across Virginia into North Carolina and as far west as Ohio, trading goods for the corn whiskey they marketed as "Hopkins' Best." With his brothers to attend to the day-to-day tasks of mercantilism, Johns had time to build a new career, and he decided to enter the field of banking. Hopkins ended his association with Hopkins & Brothers in 1845, leaving the business to his brothers.
With a natural aptitude for business, Hopkins did not suffer from his lack of formal education, and his career in banking was as successful as his career as a grocer. He served as president of Baltimore's Merchant's Bank, which specialized in loaning money to small business ventures. His practice of buying overdue notes gained him stock in several companies, and with his profits Hopkins built warehouses in the growing city, convinced that Baltimore was well positioned to become a thriving commercial center.
Saw Future of Railroad
In addition to banking, Hopkins involved himself in other business ventures, among them fire and life insurance companies, an iron steamship line and directorships of several other banks within the city. His belief in Baltimore's potential for growth prompted his most lucrative investment, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the first major railroad to form in the United States.
The importance of the development of railroad lines had been made clear to Hopkins by his need to ship and import grocery goods over vast distances as Hopkins Brothers expanded its markets and customer base. Railroads, far more efficient than wagon trains, ensured that a minimum of spoilage and breakage would occur. Appointed director in 1847, Hopkins' role with the railroad expanded in December 1855 when the 60-year-old financier became chairman of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's finance committee. His investments in the line made him the largest shareholder after the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore. At Hopkins' death he held over 15,000 shares of B & O stock.
Hopkins's hopes for the city of Baltimore came to fruition in the mid-1890s, despite financial setbacks resulting from the Civil War. Although Hopkins was not alive to witness it, the city expanded to become a major producer of cotton, milled flour and a variety of other manufactured goods, while shipping and railroad lines made it the second leading grain marketplace in the United States. By 1890 Baltimore served as the financial hub for the southern states.
Importance of Philanthropy
Living his entire adult life in Baltimore, Hopkins made many friends among the city's social elite, many of them members of the Society of Friends. One of these friends was George Peabody, who in 1857 founded the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Other examples of public giving were evident in the city, as public buildings housing free libraries, schools and foundations sprang up along the city's widening streets. On the advice of Peabody, Hopkins determined to use his great wealth for the public good.
The Civil War had taken its toll on Baltimore, however, as did the yellow fever and cholera epidemics that repeatedly ravaged the nation's cities, killing 853 in Baltimore in the summer of 1832 alone. Hopkins was keenly aware of the city's need for medical facilities, particularly in light of the medical advances made during the war, and in 1870 he made a will setting aside seven million dollars—mostly in B & O stock—for the incorporation of a free hospital and affiliated medical and nurse's training colleges, as well as a university. Each of these institutions would be overseen by a 12-member board of trustees.
Hopkins also willed funds to local agencies for the purpose of educating young people and caring for dependent families. In line with his strong Quaker beliefs, he also earmarked $20,000 per year to fund the Colored Orphans Home, an orphanage for black Americans. He also clearly stipulated that blacks would not be excluded from medical care at his hospital.
Shortly after Hopkins' death in 1874, the required 12-member panels were assembled, and Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medical Center were established. The hospital was erected in East Baltimore, on the site of the old Maryland Hospital; the university, established at the Hopkins' family seat at nearby Clifton, opened its doors in 1876. University of California president Daniel C. Gilman was made president of the new university, and he quickly recognized his task—as Stephen Bonsal wrote in Harper's New Monthly: "Appreciating … the spirit rather than the letter of the bequest which they were charged to execute, the president and trustees determined to give the people of Baltimore the life-giving bread of education rather than the stones and the hollow shell." In "unpretentious but adequate buildings," continued Bonsal, the instructors drawn to Johns Hopkins University "compared favorably with the faculties of Oxford, Heidelberg, and Paris." Recalling his own childhood and lack of educational opportunity, Hopkins arranged that free scholarships for deserving students from Virginia and Maryland be established.
An Unassuming Life
Hopkins was thrifty in his personal habits—he preferred to walk rather than be driven and never owned an overcoat—but there any similarity to Charles Dickens' character Scrooge ends. Rather than looking after his personal comfort, he amassed a great fortune and willingly spent it when a community need arose. When a financial panic in 1857 resulted in internal disputes, Hopkins underwrote the fledgling Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to keep it sound; its failure would have seriously curtailed trade in the city and the ongoing expansion of the rail line. During the Civil War he advanced $500,000 to the city to keep public services operating. During the financial panic of 1873, as businesses faced bankruptcy, he extended credit to many, often without the expectation of interest, and fronted $900,000 of B & O debt to keep the railroad solvent.
Although he was a well-known public figure, in private Hopkins let a simple, unassuming life. And he lived it in solitude. While he had fallen in love with his cousin, Elizabeth Hopkins, as a young man, Elizabeth's father, Gerard Hopkins, prohibited the two from wedding due to their blood relationship as first cousins. Elizabeth, like Johns Hopkins, never married; instead the pair remained good friends throughout their lives. While intending to travel the world, Hopkins was tied to Baltimore due to his many business interests; instead, he had to be content with connecting with distant places through his railroad and steamship interests and through books—a chronic insomniac, Hopkins became a voracious reader.
Hopkins died on December 24, 1873, at the age of 79. In the Baltimore Sun the following morning was a lengthy obituary which closed thus: "In the death of Johns Hopkins a career has been closed which affords a rare example of successful energy in individual accumulations, and of practical beneficence in devoting the gains thus acquired to the public." His contribution to the university that has become his greatest legacy was, by all accounts, the largest philanthropic bequest ever made to an American educational institution.
Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Thom, Helen Hopkins, Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette, 1929.
Harper's New Monthly, February 1896.
Sun (Baltimore), December 25, 1873.
Johns Hopkins, 1795–1873, American financier and philanthropist, founder of Johns Hopkins Univ., b. Anne Arundel co., Md. In 1819 he founded his own commission firm, later known as Hopkins Brothers, and also went into banking. He later had a large part in the growth of the Baltimore & Ohio RR, of which he became a director in 1847. His cognizance of Baltimore's lack of medical facilities in times of epidemic and his own scant education led him to bequeath, a few years before his death, $7 million for the founding of a free hospital and Johns Hopkins.
See biography by H. H. Thom (1929).