One of the most respected hospitals in New Jersey is the Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center. But who exactly was Robert Wood Johnson?
Actually, there were two men named Robert Wood Johnson, father and son. The story really begins with the elder, born in 1845. He was raised in Crystal Lake, Pennsylvania. At the age of 16 he was sent to Poughkeepsie, New York, to study as an apothecary apprentice. He took well to the work and after four years of study moved to New York City to clerk for a drug company. He went on to partner with George Seabury and open a business in 1873 which specialized in medicinal plasters. Johnson left the business in the mid 1880’s after conflicts with Seabury.
He decided to join his brothers, James and Mead Johnson, who had leased a building in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They had started a manufacturing company named Johnson & Johnson, which specialized in plasters and surgical dressings. Mead eventually left the company, and Robert became the driving force of J&J.
Johnson’s second marriage resulted in the birth of his son, Robert Wood Johnson II in April of 1893. Robert II was only sixteen when his father died, but the patriarch had built a successful business to leave behind for his family. Johnson wanted to immediately go to work at J&J when he finished prep school, but the family elders preferred he attend college. His persistence won out and landed him a series of jobs at the company factories, and at 21 he joined the Board of Directors. At age 26 Johnson became the mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey, where he lived with his first wife, Elizabeth.
Johnson focused on producing the highest quality products, but he was conservative when it came to the company capital. This habit kept the company afloat through the Great Depression. After Johnson and Elizabeth divorced, he married Maggi Shea in 1930 and moved to the Morven Estate in Princeton, New Jersey (Morven later served as the New Jersey State Governor’s Mansion from 1945 to 1981).
Shortly after the death of his Uncle James Johnson In 1932, Robert Wood Johnson II became the President and General Manager of Johnson & Johnson. In 1938, he became the CEO. In between those years, Johnson did something that would become very important to him, New Jersey, and the nation. He established the forerunner of what would become the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest American charity aimed at advances in health care.
While J&J and the Foundation were the cornerstones of his life, Johnson was also an adventurer who loved the sea and traveled extensively throughout the world. He took to dancing later in life and divorced again to marry his dance instructor, Evie Bruff.
During World War II, Johnson spent time in the military in Washington, D.C. He ran the Smaller War Plants Corporation and was eventually appointed to the rank of Brigadier General by Franklin Roosevelt.
Johnson also took to writing magazine articles in his later years, to very mixed reviews.
In the end, Robert Wood Johnson was known as a corporate boss who paid high wages and felt responsible for the well-being of his employees. He was a businessman with a strong social conscience. He was also, by most reports, a very generous man. Middlesex Hospital had received much financial support from Johnson, and the hospital was eventually renamed Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center. It has become one of the most prestigious hospitals in the State of New Jersey.
Johnson died of liver cancer on January 30, 1968, and was memorialized by the short, simple ceremony that he requested. After taking care of his wife and family, the remainder of his company stock was left to his Foundation. His legacy continues.
Source: Robert Wood Johnson, The Gentleman Rebel, by Lawrence Foster, 1999