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Robert Wood Johnson and the Science Fiction Writer

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Jul 20, 2010

In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the passing of Johnson & Johnson founder Robert Wood Johnson in 1910, this is one of several posts looking at the earliest years of Johnson & Johnson, Robert Wood Johnson as our first president, and the Company’s first senior management transition.

Robert Wood Johnson

Robert Wood Johnson

Invisible men?  Time travel?  Teleportation?  What do those ideas have to do with Johnson & Johnson?  They sound more like science fiction – and they were.  They appeared first in short stories written in 1881 by Edward Page Mitchell, one of the earliest pioneers of science fiction who wrote what’s likely the first story ever to include a time machine, years before the classic book by H. G. Wells.  But here’s the even stranger thing:  Mitchell also wrote about Johnson & Johnson founder Robert Wood Johnson.  Why did he do that?  The two men were friends, and Mitchell wrote about Johnson in one of his books – not a science fiction story, but a book called Memoirs of an Editor: Fifty Years of American Journalism.

Mitchell worked first as a reporter and later as an editor for the New York Sun, one of the leading newspapers of the late1800s.  This site has a photo of Mitchell, if anyone’s interested.  In the 1870s, when Robert Wood Johnson was living in New York and first establishing himself in the health care business, he and Mitchell became part of a circle of friends.   This circle would often meet at Pfaff’s, the famous restaurant on Broadway that was a gathering place for leading New York figures in the arts.  In the generation before Robert Wood Johnson, Pfaff’s regulars had included the poet Walt Whitman and the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast -- who first drew the modern depiction of Santa Claus that became part of popular culture. 

Seabury & Johnson Iodoform Gauze Tin

Seabury & Johnson Iodoform Gauze Tin

In the 1870s, when Robert Wood Johnson was a partner in Seabury & Johnson, he and Mitchell took a trip to Europe together.  Mitchell was there to accompany Johnson and to see the sights, and Johnson was there to assess business conditions, talk to European retail pharmacists and look at the types of products they sold, all with an eye to growing the business of Seabury & Johnson – pre-Johnson & Johnson, of course!  Mitchell, being a writer, left a vivid eyewitness description of their trip in his memoirs…complete with the interesting fact that Robert Wood Johnson wore a tall stovepipe hat that he was very reluctant to part with!  Here’s what Mitchell said:

“ ‘When we were jointly admiring some architectural marvel or sentimentalizing at some historic site, Johnson would suddenly pull his tall silk hat more firmly upon his brow and dart away to enter the shop of a neighboring chemist or apotheker or pharmacien and talk for an hour about dry mustard plasters and elastic bandages for the wounded.  I came to love him much, and to hate his hat.  He insisted on wearing it on all occasions, formal or informal alike…’ ”  [Robert Wood Johnson, The Gentleman Rebel, by Lawrence G. Foster, Lillian Press, 1999, p. 30]

The Devils Bridge, Switzerland, public domain photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So Mitchell dared Johnson to join him in throwing their hats into the deep river gorge at a place called the Devil’s Bridge at the St. Gotthard Pass in Switzerland.  Johnson very reluctantly agreed, and they bought local replacement hats to wear.  When they arrived at the site, Mitchell threw his hat in first while Johnson struggled with the decision to part with his favorite head covering.  Here’s how Mitchell described it:

“ ‘There was once a famous battle at that desolate, diabolical spot, but I doubt if the conflict was fiercer than that between Johnson’s pride of possession and sense of honor.  Not till I had shamed him by redeeming first my share of the vow did the cherished and detested stovepipe descend to the divvle, to be caught by the foaming Reuss torrent and whirled to the Rhine and out in to the North Sea unless intercepted.’ ”   [Robert Wood Johnson, The Gentleman Rebel, by Lawrence G. Foster, Lillian Press, 1999, p. 30]

Unfortunately for Mitchell, as soon as they got to Paris, Johnson went out early before breakfast one morning and bought the closest thing to his old hat that he could find – and wore it for the rest of the trip.

Public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Perhaps the most famous example of a stovepipe hat, Robert Wood Johnson's favorite hat:  public domain photo of Abraham Lincoln, courtesy of Wikipedia.

If anyone’s interested in reading some of Mitchell’s stories, which were syndicated in The New York Sun, and contained invisible men and time travel a decade before H. G. Wells, you can read them here and here.  The language, setting and attitudes are very Victorian, but the ideas are wildly innovative…something that may have appealed to Mitchell’s friend Robert Wood Johnson, who was engaged in shaking up the medical products field with some pioneering innovations of his own.

These last few posts have focused on things that were written about Company founder Robert Wood Johnson.  In my next post, we’ll have the opportunity to hear from Robert Wood Johnson himself.  How can we do that?  Stay tuned to Kilmer house to find out.

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