Sometimes a chance conversation can lead to unexpected things. In Johnson & Johnson history, conversations have led to some very well-known products from our Family of Companies. A conversation in the late 1800s between one of our founders and someone he met on vacation led to something that’s a part of modern life: The First Aid Kit. Here’s how it happened.
One day in the late 1880s, Company founder Robert Wood Johnson was on a Denver & Rio Grande train heading west through the Rocky Mountains, on his way to a much anticipated vacation. He was planning to spend that vacation at a Colorado cattle ranch.
Robert Wood Johnson was an outgoing person, and he struck up a conversation with the railway surgeon on the train. In the 1880s, according to this site on the history of railway surgeons, railway surgeons were usually general practitioners who had some experience doing surgery. Theirs was a tough job and they were hampered by the lack of sterile medical supplies and the fact that they often had to work outdoors, miles from any kind of medical facilities. The Denver & io Grande railway surgeon, when he discovered what business Robert Wood Johnson was in, realized he had a sympathetic listener and he began telling Johnson about the frequent injuries to railroad workers laying track.
Building the railroads was a grueling job. When injuries occurred, medical care and good, reliable medical supplies were often too far away to do any good. Johnson’s philosophy was to produce products that met unmet needs in society, and he had an idea. What if Johnson & Johnson packaged its sterile surgical gauze, dressings and other products together in boxes that could be kept on trains and at the sites where the workers were working? The railway surgeons would then have the supplies they needed to treat and stabilize the injured so that they could be transported to more comprehensive medical help. If anyone is interested in seeing the kinds of railroad work Robert Wood Johnson and the Denver & Rio Grande railways surgeon talked about, this site has an 1896 Thomas Edison film of railroad workers laying track for the Black Diamond Express.
So Johnson & Johnson wrote to railway surgeons across the country to ask their opinions and advice as to what types of medical supplies were needed. Here’s an excerpt one of those letters, from June 8, 1888:
“We are about to get up a railway emergency case, and wish to make one that will be of real service in the field it is intended for…it is our wish to get suggestions from practical railroad surgeons. We already have them from one of two of the surgeons of the largest western railroads.” [Letter from our archives dated June 8, 1888, signed “Johnson & Johnson.”]
In 1890 The Company put out a kit called the Railway Station and Factory Supply Case, which was (as the name suggested) designed to be placed with railroad station agents and used in factories. Here’s an 1891 advertisement for the kit:
“To meet the demand for a practical base of supplies for the use of Railroad Surgeons, we have devised the Case or chest illustrated herewith, which is intended to be placed in charge of station agents at railroad stations, and is designed to contain supplies sufficient not only for minor injuries, but also enough for a number of serious accidents…In adopting the following list of contents we have followed the suggestions of several surgeons eminent in railroad practice.” [Johnson & Johnson ad for Railroad Station Supply Case, 1891, from our archives.]
Fred Kilmer began researching best practices in First Aid, again reaching out to doctors and surgeons for information…and in 1901, Johnson & Johnson published the first First Aid Manuals, which were packaged with the kits. An uncredited writer on the early manuals was Kilmer’s son, the poet Joyce Kilmer. The manuals provide comprehensive instructions, based on input from physicians, on how to provide “first aid” for a variety of injuries until the doctor could arrive.
The Johnson & Johnson First Aid Kits filled a huge unmet need, and soon public buildings, manufacturing sites and homes began have First Aid Kits. The Company made large First Aid kits that were designed for workplaces, and small travel-sized kits that fit into a pocket for people to carry with them. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Johnson & Johnson made small kits for soldiers that could be carried in their packs or pockets.
An August 28, 1890 listing of contents for the Company’s First Aid Kits mentioned at the top that it was “Recommended by the National Convention of Factory Inspectors” and listed 18 different varieties of First Aid Kits — all with different combinations of contents, depending on the need the kit was to fill. All of the kits contained sterile gauze and cotton and sterile dressings. Some contained an Esmarch bandage. Others had sterile sutures and antiseptic sponges, as well as antiseptic tablets for use in sterilizing equipment.
When the earliest automobiles became popular, Johnson & Johnson produced Autokits, which were (as readers may already have guessed) First Aid Kits designed for use in automobiles. When airplanes came into use, the Company produced Aerokits, designed for airplanes. A Johnson & Johnson First Aid Kit was even part of the essential equipment on this historic flight.
Johnson & Johnson trained employees in First Aid and formed an employee First Aid staff under the direction of Fred Kilmer. In 1912, the future General Robert Wood Johnson was a member of that First Aid staff. His area of responsibility as a trained responder was the Company’s new store house.
In 1897, the National Association of Railway Surgeons held their tenth annual convention in Chicago, Illinois. Johnson & Johnson had an exhibit there, and the Company prepared a special issue of Aseptis Secundum Artem (our 1897 publication about the preparation of aseptic dressings) for the railway surgeons at the meeting.
Today, First Aid Kits and manuals are so much a part of modern workplaces, public buildings, homes, cars, schools, camping trips and more that it’s hard to imagine a time before they existed. The absence of reliable medical supplies and science-based information in treating injuries was once a huge unmet need in society, one that was filled as a result of a very fortuitous conversation.