A Decent Life for Every Man & Woman

    • September 17, 2012

Robert Wood Johnson’s (the General) ideas about the importance of building a country that would be economically fair to everyone, offering honorable and safe employment and accessible, high quality health care, could have been written just weeks ago.

Johnson’s 1935 pamphlet to business leaders, Try Reality, and his Credo were perfect documents then, as they are now, to remind society of the need to support the health and well-being of all citizens, not just a privileged few.  In the Credo that still guides Johnson & Johnson today, RWJ wrote:

“We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to the mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services...”[1]

“We are responsible to our employees, the men and women who work with us throughout the world.  Working conditions clean, orderly and safe.”

Working His Way Up

Deeply shaken by the death of his father in 1910, when he was only 17,[2] Johnson found solace and lifelong friends working on the factory floor of Johnson & Johnson. “Starting with the first day I went to work, and throughout my business life, I have had many close friends among the people of New Brunswick,” Johnson said in later years.[3]

In those early days, New Brunswick was a lively center of immigrant life. Many of the residents came to America for a job at Johnson & Johnson. Over the years, Johnson danced at many weddings, celebrated at christenings and enjoyed traditional Hungarian feasts of Chicken Paprika and Dobos cakes at the homes of his friends.[4]

He was the son of a wealthy family, but he was just as comfortable with the folks on the factory floor as he was with those in the executive suite.  He had always taken an active interest in the business, making his earliest visits to the factory as a young man, by his father’s side.  He quickly found that he preferred hard work to college life. Against his family’s wishes, he finally pressured a reluctant Johnson & Johnson foreman to hire him full-time in 1911.

He worked many jobs on the factory floor, before he took his rightful place on the J&J board a few years later.[5]  But, he never forgot those early days. Johnson’s empathy for people from all walks of life, combined with his incredibly generous spirit, led to the creation of the first Johnson Foundation.  In 1936, he formed the Johnson New Brunswick Foundation, (the precursor to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) to help ease the economic devastation The Great Depression had brought to so many of his dear, old friends and neighbors in New Brunswick.[6]

Bringing together all of the ideas that shaped his approach to philanthropy, management and community, Johnson wrote the book that was praised as his greatest work in 1947. Or Forfeit Freedom: People Must Live and Work Together.  In it Johnson advised: “Wages must be fair and adequate… Management just…Each person must be considered an individual standing on his own merit.” Johnson held that, “there was no such thing as a ‘common laborer,’” as he believed in equal dignity for all working men and women.[7]

In the last years of Johnson’s life, Phillip Hoffmann, chairman of the Johnson & Johnson board in 1961, said of Johnson, “his number-one love was the business [under Johnson’s leadership, the company grew from $11 million in sales to $700 million], but it wasn’t a monetary thing. It was his desire to create a business that would bring better health, serve the welfare of the people, and at the same time make a profit.”[8]

While Robert Wood Johnson did not live to see the goals, programs, and accomplishments of the Foundation that bears his name, his writings show that his wisdom, his ideas and compassion live on, shape, and inspire each grant and program.


[1] RWJ,II:The Gentleman Rebel,page 640

[2] Rebel, pages 104 to 106 (for age, RWJ, II was born in 1893)

[3] Rebel, bottom of page 114

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rebel, page 111, 112.

[6] Rebel, page 236

[7] Rebel 333 to 345.

[8] RJW and his Credo: A Living Legacy, page 79.