World War I Centennial: How the Great War Changed Johnson & Johnson
To mark the centennial of World War I this year, Britain’s National Archives is putting more than a million pages of war diaries from WWI online, and museum exhibits, articles and commemorations are bringing that era -- and how it changed society -- back into focus. World War I, which began in the summer of 1914 (a century ago this month) brought profound changes to the world: it redrew the political map and marked the end of the Edwardian era and the birth of the modern world. World War I also changed Johnson & Johnson and its employees in many ways, and it planted the seeds that would lead Johnson & Johnson to change its successful early business model and create the modern global company that we know today.
Johnson & Johnson, founded in 1886, had enjoyed steady growth that continued with the advent of the new century, opening an addition to its Cotton Mill in 1908, introducing new products, continuing the first of many advertising campaigns that would capture the public’s imagination and continuing to strengthen its relationships with the sales agents and retail pharmacists who sold its products worldwide. Looking back over the years since Johnson & Johnson was founded, Fred Kilmer in 1913 wrote about scientific progress and medical advances in that period, and said "To make the world better because of our existence, to build up a better environment, a better life...is the end towards which the onward movement of the history of our time and day is directed." [The RED CROSS® Messenger, Vol. V, No. 8, January, 1913, "The Years Glide By, p. 1] But as 1914 progressed, a tangle of European alliances and agreements, rising nationalism and multiple other factors were catalyzed by the tragic events in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. By August, the world was at war. In the September, 1914 issue of the RED CROSS® Messenger, a full page notice acknowledged the situation and the growing scarcity of resources.
By 1915, shortages of raw materials were presenting new challenges, and employees worked to secure the raw materials they needed to continue production with no interruption of service to retail pharmacists, doctors, hospitals and consumers. When the war reduced European supplies of belladonna (an ingredient in some medicated plasters), Johnson & Johnson stepped up its experiments in growing its own belladonna, and increased its cultivation of the plant in Highland Park, New Jersey. (For New Jersey readers, the site on which it was grown is now part of Johnson Park!)
Sterile gauze, dressings, first aid kits and other wound care products from Johnson & Johnson were in great demand. The Company developed a wound dressing packet for soldiers, which consisted of layers of cotton encased in gauze, a gauze pad and roller bandages, one of which was attached to the cotton and gauze dressing. This was designed to treat the new types of severe wounds from shrapnel and shells. Johnson & Johnson also produced Carlisle dressings – wound dressings in small, watertight metal containers that could be carried in a pocket. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Johnson & Johnson began making bandages and dressings for the U.S. military and stepped forward to mass – produce kits for the Carrel-Dakin method of antiseptic wound treatment, developed in a battlefield hospital as a new technology to treat wounds. The Company also improved upon a novel new burn dressing developed in European field hospitals, putting it on the market as Redintol.
By 1916, with the war in Europe at the two-year mark, Johnson & Johnson was running its manufacturing around the clock to meet the demand for surgical dressings. Although Johnson & Johnson had perhaps the highest capacity for production output of any American or European company at that time, demand for sterile dressings grew even faster than the Company’s ability to keep up. So in 1916, in order to increase capacity to meet those needs, Johnson & Johnson made a significant acquisition: the Chicopee Manufacturing Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. An historic textile mill founded in 1823 and part of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies until the mid-1990s, it remains to this date the oldest business ever acquired by Johnson & Johnson.
Although the United States had not yet entered the war in 1916, employees of the Company’s trusted sales agents in Canada, the U.K. and Australia were serving their countries on the front lines, and periodically the RED CROSS® Messenger, the Company’s publication for retail pharmacists, would list their names. The January, 1916 edition of the RED CROSS® Messenger noted that two of the publications editors – for the English and Australian editions – enlisted in the military, as did staff members of the Company’s various sales agents in Canada, Europe and Australia. According to the Messenger,
“Johnson & Johnson representatives are fighting with practically all of the armies now engaged at the theatre of war. From the English, German, Australian, Canadian and Italian branches comes the same news – that the staffs have been greatly reduced by valued men joining their Colors. The London office gave a dozen of its employees, while the Hamburg office gave practically its whole force. Two editors of the foreign editions of the Red Cross Messenger have gone to the front and are ‘doing their bit.’” [The RED CROSS® Messenger, Vol. VIII Nos. 7 & 8, January, 1916,p. 461, “Two Editors Enlist.”]
When the United States entering the conflict in April of 1917, Johnson & Johnson began running its manufacturing day and night, seven days a week to keep up with the demand for bandages and dressings, which now included the American Expeditionary and Allied Forces as well as military and civilian hospitals.
Increasing numbers of employees in New Brunswick were also serving in the military overseas, including Katherine H---, our first female employee to volunteer for military service. As a result, Johnson & Johnson – a company that had always had many female employees since its founding in 1886 – began hiring more and more women to fill the gaps left by employees in the military. Fred Kilmer encouraged employees who were serving to write letters, and they sent letters, photographs and postcards back to their colleagues at Johnson & Johnson from training and from the trenches. Today, those letters and photographs – preserved and collected in a thick scrapbook by Fred Kilmer – are a fascinating part of the Johnson & Johnson archives.
With his own son Joyce fighting in France, Fred Kilmer kept meticulous track of not just Johnson & Johnson employees who were serving, but also the employees of the Company’s sales agents in the U.K., Canada and Australia.
A century later, the incredible scrapbook he assembled provides a window into our employee-soldier’s lives, their impressions of training, of the brutal conditions in the trenches, their pride in seeing Johnson & Johnson medical supplies used to treat injuries, and their joy and gratitude at receiving letters and care packages from their Johnson & Johnson colleagues.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918. In the U.S., the aftermath of the conflict and the tremendous toll it took gave rise to an increased desire for isolationism, a feeling that the United States should look inward and pull back from international involvement. At Johnson & Johnson, the prevailing opinion was that the Company should continue to expand its successful existing network of overseas sales agents and distributors.
But 29-year-old Robert Wood Johnson realized that the Company’s export business model was not going to be sustainable in this new era, and that new opportunities for growth would have to be found. At a time in which the U.S. was pulling back from global involvement, Johnson understood that the way forward was not to work through sales agents, but to get involved globally: his idea was to open locally-managed Johnson & Johnson operating companies around the world, since they would better understand and be able to meet local needs. He also was keenly aware of the shortages in raw materials and the difficulties in getting crucial products like sterile sutures to surgeons during World War I, and he felt that local operating companies also would help ensure that the movement of critical products was not interrupted. So in 1922, Robert Wood Johnson persuaded the Company’s senior management to send him and his younger brother on a year-long, worldwide trip to study and assess business conditions. As a result of their study, by the 1930s, Johnson & Johnson had locally managed operating companies in the U.K., Canada, Australia, South Africa and Latin America. Not only were these operating companies better able to anticipate and meet local needs, they did make a difference for the Company’s supply chain – and for the people who needed the products -- during World War II. In his book Robert Johnson Talks it Over, Robert Wood Johnson gave an example of how that worked:
“…we had everything in order long before World War II. At first, the war brought shipping to a standstill, when vessels did begin to come through, they carried almost nothing for civilians. Because of Johnson & Johnson, however, Australia was able to make all the surgical dressings needed by both her civilian population and her military forces. [Robert Johnson Talks it Over, Robert Wood Johnson, Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J., 1949, p. 115]
For Johnson & Johnson – as it did for the rest of the world – World War I marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The changes in society that would come with the 1920s – the rise of the automobile, the growth of advertising, expanded roles for women – would leave their mark on the Company, which was well-placed to grow with these changes. And because of Robert Wood Johnson’s realization in the wake of the dislocation caused by World War I that the Company’s global growth had to be approached in a new way, Johnson & Johnson has been a local, trusted presence in communities around the world for generations.