Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 22, 1995

If He Could See Us Now: Mr. Johns Hopkins' Legacy Strong
University, hospital benefactor turned 200 on May 19, 1995
Mike Field / Staff Writer

     At his death, the old man didn't leave much in the way of
written records. In his 78 years he gave no speeches that are
recorded, wrote no journals or opinion pieces that have ever been
discovered and somehow managed to keep well away from the press.

     What few letters he wrote pertain largely to business. His
will--in which he bequeathed the unprecedented sum of $7 million
to found a university and a hospital bearing his name--is a
characteristically taciturn affair, stating only, for instance,
that the university should be "for the promotion of education in

     Yet if Johns Hopkins left a dearth of written testimony when
he died in 1873, there has never been a shortage of anecdotes and
stories about the man--many of them, perhaps, apocryphal. 

     For instance, there is the hoary old myth that the great
American tycoon--then one of the wealthiest men in the country--
died of pneumonia brought about because he was "too miserly" to
buy a great coat. The truth is somewhat more difficult to
ascertain, although it was widely known the stern Quaker and
former farm boy could be especially careful in his personal
spending habits.    

     In his own lifetime this fact was so widely reported that
the comment calling Hopkins "the only man more interested in
making money than I" is variously attributed to his former
business partner, a close associate, even international financier
George Peabody--anyone, it seems, who had business dealings with
the notoriously cheap Mr. Hopkins.

     Yet it was probably habit, if anything, which hastened the
Baltimore merchant banker's demise. Shortly before his death, the
city experienced a record cold snap, with temperatures plunging
to 20 below zero. Hopkins, already sick and showing some of the
frailty of his advancing years, nonetheless insisted on walking
to his office. 

     As usual, he refused to wear an overcoat or overshoes--he
had been, all his life, an exceptionally vigorous man--but within
days of this jaunt pneumonia developed, and on Christmas eve he
died quietly at home in his bed, tended by his sister Eliza and
guarded by his faithful dog Zeno. 

     He left no descendants--he never married--but at the end of
his years he playfully called the two institutions he planned on
founding "my children" and spent considerable energy providing
for their futures.

     Although unmarried, he was not without family. Hopkins was
the second of 11 children, and much of his later life was taken
up with the care and concern for sisters, brothers, nephews and

     One nephew in particular was to later recall dinners at
Clifton--the palatial Italianate summer home Hopkins purchased in
1838--as opulent affairs that always featured champagne. "I never
took a dinner at Clifton when there was not champagne, whether
company was there or not," he was to recall years later.

     "[A servant] started to fill my glass and I put my hand over
it. ' Take thy hand off thy glass, Joe,' said Uncle Johns. 'Let
the wine stand if thee does not want it, but don't publish thy
temperance resolves.' "

     The nephew's reminiscence captures something of the enigma
of Johns Hopkins: a man whose firmly held religious beliefs
included fervent abolitionism [1], hard work, simple pleasures and
the antiquated use of thee and thou to emphasize a Quaker
commitment to egalitarianism. 

     Hopkins would, nonetheless, spend considerable sums of money
enlarging and improving his beloved Clifton, eventually expanding
the estate to 330 acres of carefully planted gardens surrounding
a towered mansion where he lived alone and where he dined, each
evening, with the finest French champagnes, apparently heedless
of the Quaker beliefs in the danger of drink. Teetotalers who
advertised their temperance, it has been said, vexed him

     Born 200 years ago on May 19, Hopkins' well-to-do parents
were landholders in Anne Arundel County, known particularly for
their frequent entertainments, of which fox hunting was a

     The family lived and worked on a modest but prosperous
tobacco plantation called Whitehall, made profitable through the
use of slave labor. Initially, at least, Johns Hopkins grew up a
sheltered child of the plantation aristocracy.

     When he was 12, however, his family--prodded by conscience
and the dictates of their newly adopted Quaker faith--set free
all their slaves. The young Johns' idyllic life came suddenly to
an end. He and his older brother were recalled from boarding
school to work the fields; life for the entire family became one
of simplicity, frugality and the toil of the land. He would carry
the habits of thrift and hard work he developed at this time with
him throughout his life.

     Nor would he lose his sense of social justice. An
abolitionist before the term was even invented, Johns Hopkins
demonstrated a lifelong concern for those the larger society
exploited or ignored.

     At his death, for instance, he stipulated the hospital
bearing his name must admit black citizens as well as white, and
provided money for the care of the indigent, formerly rural
African Americans who had begun streaming into the nation's
cities such as Baltimore. 

     As a successful businessman he took special delight in
making low-interest loans to promising young applicants who had
been turned down everywhere else. As a rich uncle he was
parsimonious to his nephews and nieces, yet he bailed their
parents out repeatedly, and at the time of his death left more
than a million dollars to be divided among his surviving

     One thing seemed inescapable: he had a shrewd business sense
and a nose for new ideas and new systems that would make money.
At his death, he was the major investor (and the power behind the
throne) in the B&O Railroad, a daring and novel venture that
repaid him handsomely. It was largely through B&O stock that
Hopkins became one of the wealthiest men in America. It was that
same stock that later funded a university and a hospital.

[1] Previously adopted accounts portray Johns Hopkins as an early abolitionist whose father had freed the family's enslaved people in the early 1800s, but recently discovered records offer strong evidence that Johns Hopkins held enslaved people in his home until at least the mid-1800s. Additional information about the university's investigation of this history is available on the Hopkins Retrospective website.
Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage