Young Robert Wood Johnson Joins the Company
In my last post, I talked about how the sudden death of Robert Wood Johnson the first caused shock and sadness among his family and his employees. It was a measure of Johnson’s foresight and planning that he left Johnson & Johnson in very good hands, with strong management who could continue to guide and grow the company that he and his brothers built. James Wood Johnson was elected President of the Company, and he soon had a new and unexpected employee: his nephew, Robert Wood Johnson, Jr.
Undated Rutgers Prep Yearbook Picture of Robert Wood Johnson
Young Robert had always been close to his father, and his death when Robert was 16 left him struggling to adjust. After his graduation from Rutgers Prep at age 18, Robert decided to join Johnson & Johnson immediately, against the wishes of his family, who wanted him to go to college first. During the summer after graduation, he again worked for the Company in a variety of jobs in the factory while his mother and uncle James tried to persuade him to finish his education before coming to work full time.
Their compromise was that Robert took post-graduate classes at Rutgers Prep while continuing to work part time at Johnson & Johnson. He began to spend more time at work and less at school, while continually asking the plant foremen for a full-time job.
Power House, 1907. The Building Still Stands, and is Our Last Remaining Old Building
Robert Wood Johnson was hired first to work in the Power House, in the lowest job there, and moved from department to department to learn how the business worked. Robert was a hard worker, and the workers treated him as one of their own and formed a close bond with him. He was an avid reader and continued his education from books and by learning his family’s business from the ground up. (Incidentally, the Power House Building, now the Kilmer Museum, is our last remaining building from the earliest days of the Company.)
Robert Wood Johnson (lower center) and Workers
In 1914, Robert was elected to the Board of Directors to replace J. Ellwood Lee, who had died. Robert was 21. He didn’t have direct management control over the Company, since at that time it was handled by a Board of Control, but this recognized the fact that Robert would become a major stockholder when he turned 25, and would then have a say in how the Company was run. In 1915, Robert was made a department head, to the great delight of the workers who were so fond of him. He also began visiting Fred Kilmer in his laboratory more and more. They developed a close relationship, and Kilmer provided Robert with fatherly advice.
Employees Standing in front of Stacks of Absorbent Cotton Products
In 1918 Robert became the General Superintendent of Manufacturing for Johnson & Johnson. By that time, the Company was producing huge quantities of sterile dressings, gauze, and other medical products to treat soldiers fighting in Europe in World War I. During the late summer and early fall of 1918, the Company also made gauze face masks to help restrain the devastating 1918 flu epidemic that was sweeping through the nation. People wore these masks whenever they went out in public, to try to stem the tide of infection. It was estimated that the epidemic killed perhaps 50 million people worldwide. Closer to home, one-third of the citizens of New Brunswick were infected – about 6,700 people [Robert Wood Johnson, The Gentleman Rebel, by Lawrence G. Foster, p. 137]
Robert’s younger brother Seward commanded a submarine chaser in the Navy, and his sister Evangeline, never one to be outdone by her brothers, was a lieutenant in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in New York. When TNT stored at the Gillespie shell-loading depot in Morgan, New Jersey (part of modern-day Sayreville) exploded on October 4, 1918, destroying parts of nearby South Amboy and Perth Amboy, 21-year old Evangeline volunteered for the dangerous assignment of going in and helping the wounded, among still-unexploded shells.
World War I ended in November of that year. The War Department awarded Johnson & Johnson a special commendation for its outstanding performance during the war, and the head of the American Food Administration, Herbert Hoover praised the Company for its support of the food conservation campaign that was part of the war effort. Perhaps the most unusual award came from the Russian Minister of War (Russia and the United States were allies during World War I) who presented James Wood Johnson with a silver and gold cigar box. James had invested in the Neverslip Horse Shoe Company in New Brunswick and it had filled the largest order in its history for horseshoes for the Russian cavalry.
When Seward Johnson’s Navy service was completed in 1919, he returned and joined Johnson & Johnson in the purchasing and planning departments. Robert would always have the larger role in the Company, but the two brothers would retain a lifelong close relationship. The stage was set for a younger generation of management with new ideas that would guide the Company into global expansion and decentralization. Another member of that generation, a cotton mill employee named Earle Dickson, would invent the BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandage, which would become one of the products that would define Johnson & Johnson in the minds of consumers.