Johns Hopkins and George Peabody were both born in 1795. Both got enormously rich and both gave most of their money away.
Peabody, in fact, has been described as the father of American philanthropy, setting an example for Carnegie and Rockefeller. He made his money in banking and left at his death about $8 million in charitable bequests, including a fund to house the poor in London. Also benefitting were the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, the Peabody Museum in Boston and just about anything in New England with the name Peabody on it.
Hopkins wasn’t quite as well off, but his $7 million bequest to Baltimore for a college, nursing school, medical school and orphanage went a very long way.
They were, in short, the Buffett and Gates of their time.
Hopkins was a Quaker – named, btw, for his grandfather Johns Hopkins, who had been given his mother’s maiden name as a first name – and he was born into a comfortable existence on a 500-acre farm in Maryland. But when he was 12, his family emancipated their slaves in accordance with the policy of the Society of Friends.
Part of that policy was to free the able-bodied, but to continue to provide a home and care for the aged and infirm, who could not be expected to support themselves.
That put a strain on the family finances, so Johns, who was the second of 11 Hopkins children, moved to Baltimore at the age of 17 to work for his uncle in the wholesale grocery business. Fast forward 25 years: Uncle Hopkins has retired, Johns has brought in two of his brothers as partners, the business has flourished, as have his investments and Johns retires from the business.
He remains active in banking and in the business he invested in, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Always a big supporter of the B&O, he was its third largest shareholder, just after the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore. Eventually, he was chairman of the board.
In fact, most of his estate consisted of B&O shares, which went towards the founding of one of America’s great universities.
Hopkins reportedly once said to his gardener, “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.”
The Peabody Institute, incidentally, is now part of Johns Hopkins University.
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Many happy returns to Cher – here she is wearing all the hair available in the ’80s: