People around the globe are conversant with Johns Hopkins Hospital and its university and medical school in Baltimore, but almost no one is conversant about the man. Of course, that’s how “Johnsie,” as he was known to family and friends (“Mr. Johnsie” to servants), wanted conversations to be directed following his death. Despite an enormous civic presence in life, he gave no speeches, wrote few letters, kept no journals and thoroughly destroyed all of his personal papers.
Hopkins was born in 1795, one of 11 children in a Quaker family. At 17, he left home to become a helper in his uncle’s wholesale grocery and after seven years was an accomplished businessman. He accumulated wealth through his own wholesale dry goods business, banking, insurance, railroading, personal lending and even by exchanging dry goods for whiskey, which he resold as “Hopkins Best.” The last effort got him temporarily suspended from the Quaker religion, and he told a nephew that it was the worst mistake of his life.
When marriage to the love of his life — his uncle’s daughter, Elizabeth — was forbidden by his family and religion, he vowed never to marry. Instead, he determined that his “children” would be a great university and a great hospital.
The success of the institutions is obvious. But an insufficiently heralded contribution to the world is that the Hopkins universe demonstrates the seamless, enduring integration of capitalism and socialism.
Capitalist societies driven by profit invariably grow an intolerable chasm between the rich and poor, leading to ultimate collapse. The socialist mantra, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” has historically been equally unsuccessful. The problem is invariably the inability to create efficient and enduring braking mechanisms on greed in one system and balancing needs/wants in the other. Johnsie devised a workable amalgam.
His organizations demonstrate that the two philosophies can co-exist and integrate efficiently, spurring entrepreneurship, research and innovation while meeting the educational and medical needs of the poor, elderly and infirm. The genius of Johnsie and his trustees is that for over 100-years “his children” have excelled economically and compassionately. Their paradigm stands ready as a beacon of hope to guide politicians and followers through the shoals of today’s vitriol and intransigence to the safe harbor of bipartisanship.
The Hopkins legacy dwarfs that of any Baltimorean, though the stewards of his estate were also brilliant in their execution of his wishes. They sacrificed short-term satisfaction for long-term goals and placed the expenditure priority on people rather than structures.
That policy kept the university in the southwest Mt. Vernon area for 30 years, despite Johnsie’s dream of locating it on his summer estate known as Clifton. All three of his primary homes were sold to sustain his “children.”
Whitehall, his birthplace and home for 17 years, has withered from 500 acres to 13, and the mansion is vacant and boarded up. Its current owner applied for a demolition permit nearly two years ago, and its fate is still uncertain. Johnsie’s winter residence at 14 W. Saratoga Street, where he died on Christmas Eve in 1873, was demolished and replaced by a parking garage.
The summer home in northeast Baltimore City has narrowly survived. Its name, Clifton, was derived from the 4,000-acre Virginia estate named “The Clifts,” where Johnsie’s great-grandmother Margaret Johns — who would later marry Gerard Hopkins — was raised.
Clifton was also sold to bolster the financial viability of the estate. The budget-constrained Baltimore City Department of Recreation & Parks allowed it to deteriorate to the point that its demolition was imminent until the intervention of the nonprofit group Civic Works, which established its headquarters in the mansion. In 2007, Clifton and its surrounding park were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
On Saturday, Civic Works will offer a chance to mingle with the ghost of Johns Hopkins. The Clifton mansion is decorated for Christmas, and an open house will be held for the public from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. (2701 St. Lo Drive). Such opportunities to connect spiritually with the man are few and dwindling.
Paul H. Belz is a writer living in Baltimore. He can be reached at www.paulbelzwriting.com