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The Origins of Our Disaster Relief: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Aug 20, 2008

Two posts ago, I wrote about how the very first seeds of our disaster relief program can be traced back to 1898. My last post talked about how this philosophy -- of providing products when a need arose -- led Johnson & Johnson to donate products and aid to help the survivors of the deadly Galveston hurricane in 1900. In 1906, another natural disaster struck, and Johnson & Johnson responded again. This response marked the official start of the Company’s disaster relief program…one of the oldest corporate disaster relief programs in existence.

Panoramic photo showing Johnson & Johnson and railroad bridge

Panoramic photo showing Johnson & Johnson and railroad bridge in New Brunswick. The Johnson & Johnson buildings are those closest to the bridge. This proximity helped the Company rush products to San Francisco.

In 1906, six years after the Galveston Hurricane and 20 years after its founding, Johnson & Johnson was doing well. Business was expanding and so was the Company. From its location in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Johnson & Johnson sold products across the U.S. and overseas through a combination of “travelers” (salespeople, as they were called back then) and local sales agents. In San Francisco, this was handled by the Company’s Pacific Coast sales agents, a firm called Waldron & Dietrich at 144 Second Street in San Francisco.

Waldron & Dietrich Bookplate

Bookplate from Waldron & Dietrich, from our archives, circa 1914. The address reflects their new location after the San Francisco Earthquake.

At 5:13 in the morning of April 18th, 1906, when most residents of San Francisco were still asleep or just waking up, the city was struck by an enormous earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale. The earthquake devastated the city, leveling large portions of the downtown, destroying homes and businesses and rupturing gas lines, which caused massive fires that burned for days.

Destroyed Houses, San Francisco 1906

Collapsed houses in San Francisco after the earthquake, 1906. Picture courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration by way of

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall after the earthquake. Picture courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration by way of

Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless, and many needed medical attention that the overwhelmed city was struggling to provide. Dazed survivors wandered in the streets or quickly gathered possessions as they fled from the advancing fires. Here’s a good account from the April 18, 1906 edition of The New York Times. With the city’s water mains broken, firemen were hard-pressed to fight the huge fires. Buildings in the path of the fire were dynamited in the hope of creating firebreaks, and this added to the city’s devastation. If anyone's interested, eyewitness descriptions of the earthquake, fleeing the fires and recovery efforts can be found at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.

San Francisco 1906, Fires

Fires at Market Street between Third and Fourth Streets. Picture courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, by way of

By 10:00 am, the raging fires destroyed what remained of the Company's warehouse and the offices of the Johnson & Johnson sales agents in San Francisco. Their stores of product gone, Waldron & Dietrich received special permission from the Red Cross to telegraph an urgent appeal across the country to Johnson & Johnson for emergency medical supplies. The Company mobilized its employees and, within hours, rail cars filled with Johnson & Johnson products were on their way from New Brunswick to San Francisco, among them gauze, sutures, bandages and more. Later, when the city took stock of the earthquake and its aftermath, it was found that Johnson & Johnson donated the largest amount of medical supplies sent to San Francisco after the disaster.

Early Cotton and Gauze Products

Some of the Company's early medical products

But sending medical supplies wasn’t all the Company did. Here’s what Fred Kilmer said about the complete relief effort:

“Johnson & Johnson sent a cash contribution of one thousand dollars to the San Francisco sufferers; at enormous expense they sent by express, within thirty hours, a supply of goods for emergency use in the field. To all druggists and hospitals who had suffered by the earthquake they extended their sympathy in a substantial manner – all accounts under one hundred dollars were receipted in full, larger accounts were adjusted by extension of time, new stocks were supplied with which to commence business…” [RED CROSS MESSENGER, Vol. V, No. 8, January, 1913, p. 228]

Since then, Johnson & Johnson has provided products and aid to help the victims of natural and man-made disasters all over the world. In 2006, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake, Johnson & Johnson made a large contribution to the San Francisco Fire Department’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Training Program (NERT for short!), donated a disaster relief module to the city for use in a future emergency, and made a donation to the San Francisco Boys and Girls Clubs. This was in recognition of the Company's historic tie to the city it helped in 1906.

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JANUARY 21, 2009 02:22 PM


I am doing a homework project in my English class and would like to thank you so much for publishing this information! It helped me alot!

JANUARY 25, 2010 11:02 AM


The San Francisco earthquake in 1906 was not the first time that Johnson & Johnson had supplied products to help after a major disaster. We had done so in 1900 after the Galveston Hurricane. Some of the lessons learned would have been to get the product out to the affected area as quickly as possible (which was made easier by teh fact that the railroad ran right near Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, NJ), and to provide monetary aid as well. In 1906, not only did the Company supply monetary assistance along with the medical products, but employees also took up a collection on their own as well. In modern times, the Company regularly supplies relief organizations with modules containing medical and personal care products, so that the organizations already have them on hand in case they are needed.

Hope this information was helpful!