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Robert Wood Johnson I: A Pioneer in Healthcare

Johnson & Johnson co-founder Robert Wood Johnson (1845-1910) was born into a world before sterile surgery and sanitary wound care. He would have a profound impact on both and help usher in modern healthcare. Robert Wood Johnson was born on February 20, 1845 in Crystal Lake, Pennsylvania, the eighth child of 11 children in a large family. In 1845, the United States was less than a century old.  It was still largely rural, with more citizens living on farms than in cities. The year of Johnson’s birth would see the addition of Florida and Texas as the 27th and 28th states of the United States. When Robert Wood Johnson was nine years old, Florence Nightingale instituted sanitary conditions in European military hospitals during the Crimean War. In the early 1860s, French scientist Louis Pasteur’s experiments on fermentation led to the discovery of germ theory, the recognition that disease and infection were caused by tiny microbes too small to be seen with the naked eye, a revolutionary step forward in the understanding of the causes of infection.  In the United States, the 1861 start of the Civil War led two of Robert’s older brothers to enlist in the Union Army.  Anxious to protect Robert, his parents apprenticed the young teenager at Wood & Tittamer, a retail pharmacy in Poughkeepsie, New York belonging to his mother’s cousin James Wood. This pharmacy apprenticeship would give Robert Wood Johnson a career in a growing field that would be revolutionized by the scientific developments of the 19th century.  At Wood & Tittamer, Johnson learned to make medicated plasters – adhesive patches that delivered medicine directly through the skin, a popular 19th century product. He later would go on to perfect their manufacture, instituting innovations that that improved their efficacy and quality and allowed them to be mass produced by machine rather than made by hand. 

Johnson & Johnson co-founder Robert Wood Johnson.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Moving to New York City at age 19, Robert Wood Johnson went to work for drug wholesaler James Scott Aspinwall at 86 William Street in lower Manhattan. Interested in ideas, Johnson had a circle of friends that included science fiction writer Edward Page Mitchell and advertising pioneer J. Walter Thompson, both creative thinkers whose concepts would go on to help shape the 20th century. In 1874, Robert Wood Johnson formed a business partnership with George J. Seabury. Seabury & Johnson quickly became a successful and respected maker of medicated plasters and other health care products. In 1876, Robert attended the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the first World’s Fair in the United States, a celebration of the country’s 100th birthday highlighting American innovation and progress. New inventions making their debut at the Centennial Exposition included the world’s largest Corliss steam engine, soda water, popcorn, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, and the first mechanical dishwasher. It was attended by roughly ten million visitors – about a fifth of the entire U.S. population at the time; also among the attendees was Dr. Joseph Lawrence, the inventor of LISTERINE® Antiseptic. 

Wood & Tittamer, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Johnson attended a lecture at the Medical Congress by English surgeon Sir Joseph Lister, the father of modern antiseptic surgery. Lister had performed the first sterile surgical wound treatment in 1865 by applying Louis Pasteur’s groundbreaking germ theory to surgery, developing the practice of sterile surgery.  Surgery before Lister was not sterile, with surgeons operating in street clothing without washing their hands, using non-sterile dressings and unsterilized instruments, leading to surgical infection rates greater than 90% at some hospitals.  Lister lectured for three hours, explaining his sterile surgical technique in detail to an audience of skeptical doctors. His talk inspired Robert Wood Johnson to pursue the development and manufacture of the first mass produced sterile surgical dressings and sterile sutures to help reduce post-surgical infection rates in American hospitals and make surgery sterile and survivable for patients.

Illustration of one of the buildings at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition

Image courtesy: iStock

Leaving Seabury & Johnson in late 1885, younger brothers James Wood Johnson and Edward Mead Johnson started Johnson & Johnson in 1886, with Robert joining a few months later. Robert’s outgoing personality led to a friendship with New Brunswick pharmacist and pharmaceutical chemist Fred Kilmer, who would become the Director of Scientific Affairs for Johnson & Johnson from 1889 to 1934. In 1887, Johnson & Johnson put on the market the first mass produced sterile surgical dressings and sterile sutures.  Additional innovations rapidly followed that helped shape modern health and personal care.  These included the first commercial first aid kits in 1888, maternity kits to make childbirth safer in 1894, the first mass produced women’s sanitary protection products in 1897, oral care products and more.  Johnson also put in place far reaching and comprehensive benefits for employees at Johnson & Johnson, including in 1898 support for employees who serve in the military, onsite medical care in 1906, free hot meals for night shift manufacturing workers in 1909, insurance, and more.  Under Johnson’s leadership, the progressive values of the company took shape, and included management training open to women, the hiring of the company’s first female scientist in 1908, and the inauguration of the company’s tradition of providing disaster relief in the community in 1900 and 1906. The company’s future-oriented focus and management for the long term also have their origins with Robert Wood Johnson I. Robert Wood Johnson served as President of Johnson & Johnson from 1887 to 1910. His founding ideals would later find expression in Our Credo, written by his son Robert Wood Johnson II.

Sir Joseph Lister

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

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