Johns Hopkins


In 1884, after he was offered an appointment to the medical faculty of the newly created Johns Hopkins University, Dr. William Henry Welch wrote to his stepmother: “Such great things are expected of the medical faculty at the Johns Hopkins in the way of achievement and of reform of medical education in this country that I feel oppressed by the weight of responsibility. A reputation there will not be so cheaply earned as at Bellevue, but in so far the stimulus to do good work will be the greater. I shall be surrounded by cultivated, refined and distinguished men, who will estimate a man for his intrinsic worth and not for money or glitter.”

Welch’s concern over the potential responsibility was not exaggerated. The first physician to receive such an appointment to the fledgling university, he was going against the advice of practically all of his friends, relatives, and colleagues. With such great hospitals as Bellevue in New York beckoning, why would any selfrespecting professor of pathology decide to remove himself to the backwater of Baltimore, forsaking the allure and prestige of a ready-made career? As Welch reasoned it: “It is a mistake to believe that a reputation made there [at Hopkins] would not equal one made in New York in my line of work. In practice of medicine of course it would not, but the results of research and discovery redound equally to one’s reputation whether made in Oshkosh or in New York.” And so he accepted.

Although the undergraduate part of the university had opened on a limited basis by October of 1876, nothing was finished by the time Welch received his offer—more than a decade after the death of the school’s benefactor, a wealthy merchant who had died late in 1873. Hopkins, a lifelong bachelor, had genuine philanthropic interests but had trouble deciding what to do with his fortune. As the son of a prosperous Quaker tobacco farmer from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Hopkins had enjoyed a pampered and leisurely childhood, though he was one of a brood of eleven children. But the hard realities of the working life abruptly dropped onto his young shoulders when, in 1807, his father’s adherence to a new Quaker policy led him to free all his slaves. Suddenly young Johns—it was a family name—was forced to drop out of school at age twelve and go to work in the fields.

Finding the life of a farmer not to his liking, Hopkins waited until he was seventeen and then went to work for his uncle Gérard Hopkins, a wholesale grocer in Baltimore. He soon proved his ability as a shrewd merchant, capably handling the shop whenever his uncle went away on business and making excellent suggestions for improving sales. But when Johns announced a few years later that he wished to marry his first cousin Elizabeth, Gerard Hopkins’ only daughter, the friendly working relationship came to an abrupt end, for his aunt and uncle were appalled at the “incestuous” suggestion. So, having saved sufficient capital to set himself up, and with a little help from his family, he went into business alone as a supplier of whiskey, tobacco, and other staples. He quickly prospered, making $200,000 worth of sales in the first year. But he never courted another woman.


Within a few years Hopkins had branched out, selling provisions as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Ohio. By 1847 his now-established wealth and keen business sense had created quite a reputation for him, and he was named, in that year, president of the Merchants’ National Bank of Baltimore and a director of the rapidly expanding Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The B&O was a further boost to his flourishing fortune; by the time he died, he owned fifteen thousand shares of its stock. During the Civil War he was one of three bankers who loaned the city of Baltimore $500,000; later, during the Panic of 1873, he advanced $900,000 to the railroad to help it meet its interest payments.

With increasing age Hopkins began to ponder more and more the problem of disposing of his considerable fortune “for the good of humanity.” There were plenty of advisers, and someone eventually pointed out that it would be unique for Hopkins to bestow his name on both a university and a hospital. A charter was obtained in 1867 and a board of trustees appointed. Hopkins set down his stipulations for the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital: of his estimated estate of $7,000,000 half was to go toward the university, of which the school of medicine would be a part, and half to the hospital. The capital was to be totally invested in either stocks or real estate, with interest paying the cost of construction. It was a unique arrangement; it would be the first hospital subject to the authority of a university, with the medical school tagging along after both. Eventually the hospital and the university would have separate boards of trustees.