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The Origins of Our Disaster Relief: 1898

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Jul 30, 2008

Since the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, Johnson & Johnson has been known for helping the victims of natural and man-made disasters around the world.  Although we date our disaster relief program to 1906 (when it became more formal and we started officially documenting it), its roots actually go back nearly a decade earlier…almost to the beginning of Johnson & Johnson.  The Company’s Scientific Director, Fred Kilmer, was an eyewitness to the birth of this tradition – and he traced its first seeds all the way back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Two Soldiers in the Spanish American War, 1898

Two soldiers in the Spanish-American War, 1898, from our archives.  The one on the left was a Johnson & Johnson employee in the Plaster Mill. During the Spanish-American War, the Company manufactured a line of compressed dressings specifically for use in treating wounded soldiers.  The need for these dressings soon outstripped what Johnson & Johnson was supplying to the U.S. Army.  Naturally, the Company increased production of the dressings.  But, as Fred Kilmer wrote: “…the operations of the campaign were so urgent that the extra expense involved in the preparation of the goods more than overbalanced the price received.”  [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol 5, No. 8, January 1913]   So what did Johnson & Johnson do?  The Company took a loss on the dressings, because the management and employees saw it as their duty to help and went ahead despite the extra cost.    

Dressings and Other Products, circa 1890s

Cotton, Gauze and Wound Dressing Products, circa 1890s

These actions had their roots in the personal philosophy of Company founder Robert Wood Johnson, who felt that because Johnson & Johnson made products that helped save lives, they should make sure the products were available when needed. 

Company Founder Robert Wood Johnson

Company Founder Robert Wood Johnson

Kilmer said of Johnson: “ ‘When once convinced that an article which he could manufacture would save life and prevent suffering, he caused it to be manufactured and placed before the [medical] profession irrespective of any consideration of profit.’ ”  [Robert Wood Johnson, The Gentleman Rebel by Lawrence G. Foster, p. 109]  Johnson’s outlook was shared by those who worked with him…and just two years later, it started to grow into the Company’s tradition of providing emergency help after disasters.

(By the way, this was 45 years before Our Credo was written... by Johnson's son, General Robert Wood Johnson.  General Johnson, who led Johnson & Johnson from 1932 to 1963, wrote Our Credo, which outlines the Company’s responsibilities to doctors, nurses, patients and customers; employees; the community; and, last, to shareholders.  Our Credo was based on Johnson’s personal beliefs about the social responsibility of business, incorporating many of the lessons he learned from his father, the first Robert Wood Johnson.)

So the first seeds of our disaster relief program date to helping wounded soldiers in the Spanish-American War.  But what was the event that triggered our first-ever instance of disaster relief?  Stay tuned to my next post.

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