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Scientific Director Frederick B. Kilmer

Over the course of his prolific career at the company, Frederick Barnett Kilmer defined Johnson & Johnson, influencing virtually every aspect of the business. Before joining the company, he was a retail pharmacist, scientist, writer, and public health pioneer who moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1879. During his 45 years at Johnson & Johnson, he expanded its scientific research and laboratories, pioneered large-scale industrial sterilization, and inaugurated publications and products to improve public health.

Kilmer was born in Connecticut in 1851 and moved to New Brunswick with his wife, Annie, at the age of 28. They would have four children and, tragically, survive them all.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

From his earliest days in New Brunswick, Kilmer was a champion of public health. He co-founded the Board of Public Health to improve sanitation and clean up the water supply soon after he’d arrived in the city. Like most places at that time, New Brunswick had limited sanitation. Raw sewage drained directly from houses into the streets. This lack of basic cleanliness caused the spread of deadly disease. This was a time before antibiotics or most vaccines, so once an outbreak began, it was difficult to stop. It was within this community that Kilmer began his drive to improve public health.

On the far left stands Fred Kilmer outside of his Opera House Pharmacy. Among the business’ regular patrons was famed inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, who frequently bought supplies from the pharmacy to build his creations. By the 1880s, Edison's workshop was nearby in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

By trade, Kilmer was a formally educated pharmacist and scientist who owned his own local business in the early 1880s, the Opera House Pharmacy. Located on the ground floor of the stunning Victorian-style Masonic Hall, the building—as its name would suggest—was also home to the city’s opera house. It was here that he first met Johnson & Johnson founder Robert Wood Johnson, a frequent patron. Johnson had heard of Kilmer and respected his devotion to public health. 

Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment illustrated just how crude operations were in the 1880s. Author Fred Kilmer taught the reader how to transform the kitchen table into an operating table.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Two years later, Johnson enlisted Kilmer’s help as a skilled writer and scientist to create a how-to guide on sterile surgery. The Johnson brothers had learned that it was not enough to produce antiseptic surgical supplies; they also needed to teach medical professionals how to use them. Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment offered physicians and surgeons step-by-step directions to safely perform operations outside of hospitals. It also was a catalog of company products that were needed to accomplish these surgeries successfully. Within months of its publication, Johnson & Johnson had disseminated 85,000 copies to pharmacists and doctors across the country, free of charge. Soon, the guide became the industry standard.

New Jersey’s vast salt marshes made the state a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitos. To combat them, Kilmer invented the Mosquitoon, a type of fumigator (a device that used smoke to kill bugs), which as its name would suggest, specifically targeted mosquitoes.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

As the company’s scientific director—beginning in 1889—Kilmer designed and promoted products to combat public health problems. At the company, he continued the forward-looking, instructive precedent that he had set with Modern Methods. Employing his skills as a scientist, Kilmer applied his expertise to invent the first industrial-scale sterilizing machines. From his earliest years, he saw public health as a natural extension of the company’s mission of saving lives by helping to make surgery sterile. Kilmer designed new products like fumigators, Mosquitoons, and antibacterial soaps to combat epidemics that still plagued the United States. Alongside these products, he wrote bulletins and published additional free information to teach families how to do their part to limit the spread of infectious disease.

In 1901, Kilmer wrote a bulletin about typhoid fever, a highly-contagious disease spread through contaminated water and food. Part of a public health initiative, his article explained basic steps locals could take to prevent its spread.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Kilmer’s dedication to public health touched all aspects of his work at Johnson & Johnson, including his writing. Among his many publications and periodicals was the country’s inaugural comprehensive, commercial Standard First Aid Manual, released in 1901. The guide spanned a broad range of topics, teaching Americans basic hygiene and emergency care. Kilmer’s manual did more than educate; it started a movement. In the years that followed, similar manuals multiplied. The guide’s popularity signaled that Americans were beginning to take an active interest in their health.

Kilmer founded the company’s Aseptic Department in the early 1900s. The department was a series of “clean rooms” where sterile surgical dressings and sutures were mass-produced in sterile conditions and sterilized using the first industrial-size machinery for the task, also of Kilmer’s design.

Image courtesy: Johnson & Johnson Archives

Beyond his many scholarly and scientific contributions, Kilmer also worked as Johnson & Johnson’s chief publicity officer for many years. In this role, he oversaw advertising and outreach, communicating with medical professionals and the public. Kilmer inaugurated and edited Red Cross Notes, a scientific journal for the medical profession, and Red Cross Messenger, a journal for retail pharmacists, which explained the philosophy behind Johnson & Johnson and the science behind its products, as well as featuring articles for pharmacists on how to increase their business. 

Over the course of his career at Johnson & Johnson, Fred Kilmer’s work went so far as to improve upon the sterilization methods of trailblazers like physicians Joseph Lister (who discovered antiseptic surgery) and Robert Koch (who pioneered microbiology and steam sterilization). Kilmer was also an early advocate for women in science, hiring the company’s first woman scientist, a chemist, in 1907 and promoting pharmacy as a career for women.  Over his nearly five-decade career at the company, Kilmer forever changed Johnson & Johnson, solidifying its dedication to education, as well as product innovation, and expanding its reach beyond surgery to the burgeoning field of public health. A student of history in his spare time, Kilmer also founded the company’s archives and museum and began Johnson & Johnson’s tradition of preserving its heritage of innovation and caring.

 

 

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