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Fred Kilmer’s Working Vacation

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Jul 13, 2012

While we generally think of benchmarking as a modern concept, it’s something that has been around for a long time. (The name has its origins in the horizontal markings surveyors chiseled into stone buildings centuries ago in Europe.)  For a business, benchmarking is critical, so it comes as no surprise that getting out of the office to see what others are doing is a longstanding tradition at Johnson & Johnson.  In fact, in 1899, Fred Kilmer went to Europe on a working vacation to do just that:  benchmarking.

Fred Kilmer, from our archives. Let the benchmarking begin!

In 1899, the U.K. (home to Sir Joseph Lister) and Germany (home to microbiology pioneer Robert Koch) were the places to go for scientific benchmarking.  So Fred Kilmer, his wife Annie and their twelve-year-old son Joyce left New Brunswick for Europe in May of 1899.  Today, in the age of fast-paced air travel, most vacations last about a week or so.  But over 100 years ago when the pace of life was not as rapid, travel to Europe was done by ship.  With much longer travel times, vacations tended to last longer as well.  So the Kilmers sailed from New York harbor on the USS Patricia -- a brand new steamship just launched that year -- to spend a few months overseas.

Public domain photo of the USS Patricia, Public domain photo of The Patricia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The USS Patricia -- the ship that took the Kilmer family to Europe in 1899. Public domain photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Wikipedia.

Public domain photo of The USS Patricia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, at this link.

Today we use social networks to let people know what we’re up to; in 1899 there was no Facebook, but there was the “People You Know” column in the New Brunswick Daily Times which, believe it or not, served a similar purpose.

The "People You Know" column in the April 28, 1899 edition of The New Brunswick Daily Times, with the social network update that the Kilmer family was headed to Europe.

At the end of April, the New Brunswick Daily Times social column updated the Kilmer family’s status by reporting “Fred B. Kilmer, head chemist for Johnson & Johnson, will sail next month for England on a business trip.  He will be accompanied by Mrs. Kilmer and their son.”  [The Daily Times, New Brunswick, NJ, Friday, April 28, 1899, People You Know column.]

The voyage to Europe was uneventful, and the Kilmers soon embarked on their travels.   Annie and Joyce stayed at Newton Grange in Derbyshire, England, while Fred Kilmer immersed himself in assessing the state of health care products makers, labs and universities on behalf of Johnson & Johnson.

These days, people post vacation updates to Facebook and Twitter.  In 1899, Annie Kilmer posted her vacation updates through letters back to the New Brunswick Daily Times.  According to the custom of the day, the Times published them in order to update New Brunswick residents on what a fellow resident was doing.

“During the absence of the chemist and his wife our readers have been entertained from time to time with an interesting account of the sights seen by the tourists in letters which have been written by Mrs. Kilmer.  These letters gave the interesting points seen, which were described in a very clever manner, and they were much enjoyed by the many residents of, and out of the city who read them from week to week in the TIMES.”  [The Daily Times, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Saturday, August 26, 1899, p. 1, “Home From Europe, Mr. and Mrs. F. B. Kilmer Return from a Long Visit Abroad.”]

Meanwhile, Fred Kilmer visited research institutions, labs and manufacturers.  The Times reported:

“He had visited the great laboratories and institutions of learning connected with the branch of science in which he was interested and spent considerable time in the business methods of the English and German merchants.  Among the laboratories visited was one of the greatest in the world pertaining to bacteriology at Berlin, and others devoted to chemistry at Leipsig, Berlin and Dalmstadt.”  [The Daily Times, New Brunswick, N.J. Saturday, August 26, 1899, p. 1,  “Home From Europe, Mr. and Mrs. F. B. Kilmer Return From a Long Visit Abroad.”]

Robert Koch. Public domain photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Public domain photo of Robert Koch courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, at this link.

Berlin was the home base of Robert Koch, one of the fathers of microbiology, whose experiments on steam sterilization Kilmer replicated at Johnson & Johnson when he joined the Company.  Kilmer and Koch didn’t meet on this trip, however, since Koch was away on an expedition studying ways to combat malaria, from which he wouldn’t return until 1900.

After a few months, the Kilmers headed home, arriving back in New York in the late afternoon of August 25, 1899 on the White Star Line’s Britannic.  The name of that ship may sound familiar to admirers of historic White Star steamships, but the Britannic that brought the Kilmer family back home wasn’t the sister ship of the Titanic with the same name. (That Britannic – which sank like its famous sibling – wasn’t launched until 1914.)

The Britannic – the clumsy sibling of the White Star Line. Public domain photo of the SS Britannic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Public domain photo of the SS Britannic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, at this link.

The Britannic that brought the Kilmers home to the U.S. was a much smaller predecessor with the same name, but it shared some unfortunate tendencies with its later namesake:  on various voyages, this Britannic ran aground, sprang a leak and collided with another ship – several times.  Fortunately, the Kilmers’ return voyage was uneventful, except for some bad weather which would have made the ship – significantly narrower and deeper than the cruise ships of today -- pitch around like a roller coaster.  Shortly after the Kilmers’ seasickness-inducing homeward trip on the accident-prone Britannic, it was converted into a troop ship to transport soldiers during the Boer War.

A corner of the Johnson & Johnson lab, from our archives.

The next morning, August 26th, Fred Kilmer was back in his customary place at Johnson & Johnson, where he was visited by a New Brunswick Daily Times reporter eager to get his updates from his family’s European trip.  The reporter was disappointed when the ever-modest Kilmer informed him that what he had been doing would have been of small interest to the general public, “…as he saw little that the tourist does, his time being mostly devoted to a research and study of drugs used by his firm and to an investigation of the methods of the foreign competitive manufacturers.”  [The Daily Times, New Brunswick, N.J. Saturday, August 26, 1899, p. 1,  “Home From Europe, Mr. and Mrs. F. B. Kilmer Return From a Long Visit Abroad.”]  In that respect, Kilmer had much in common with Sir Joseph Lister, who took his wife to visit hospitals and research institutions on their honeymoon.

The Johnson & Johnson Aseptic Department, from our archives -- its pioneering sterile manufacturing techniques were an example of the Company's eagerness to try new things.

While he didn’t have much to say about sightseeing, Fred Kilmer was eager to talk about what he had seen and noticed during his visits to the premier European labs and medical products firms of the late Victorian era.  Kilmer noted that some of the European firms “still held to the customs and traditions of their ancestors.”  They were reluctant to change and seemed to be suspicious of innovation, preferring to rely on tradition and, as Kilmer put it, “the old methods.”  Kilmer felt they were 100 years behind the times.  Other firms were progressive and modern, but lacked the flexibility and willingness to try new things that were hallmarks of the then 13-year-old Johnson & Johnson.  No doubt that comparison pleased the Johnson brothers, who went to great lengths to make sure that their business was flexible, responsive to unmet needs and to new developments in science and medicine; and quick in developing new products that took advantage of – and advanced -- scientific progress.   (In fact, Robert Wood Johnson and his brothers had left a successful business in 1885 to do just that.)

1892 Johnson & Johnson ad showing international locations, from our archives.

Interestingly enough, the Daily Times article concluded by mentioning that Fred Kilmer also visited the main Johnson & Johnson branch in Golden Lane, London, as well as the Company’s “sub-branches” in Hamburg, Belgium and Spain.  (In 1899 those were most likely sales offices or sales agents working on behalf of the Company.)  “He assisted the managers of the several branches in enlarging their territory and increasing their business.  From a business standpoint as well as that of a tourist he was much pleased with his trip.”  [The Daily Times, New Brunswick, N.J. Saturday, August 26, 1899, p. 1,  “Home From Europe, Mr. and Mrs. F. B. Kilmer Return From a Long Visit Abroad.”]  No doubt his friend Robert Wood Johnson was pleased too, and began incorporating the information gathered by his Director of Scientific Affairs into his plans for the future.

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