Our History

For more than 45 years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve the most pressing health issues facing America.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has supported an ongoing national dialogue to engage the public and health professionals alike, the sick and the well, the young and the old. We have focused on the quality of care, its measurable outcomes, the equity of access to it, and how to avoid getting sick in the first place. As we move forward, we look back to our beginnings and to the men and women who shared and helped shape the vision of our founder, Robert Wood Johnson II.

Our Founder

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Robert Wood Johnson II was born in 1893 and named after his father, the president of the Johnson & Johnson Company. After his father's death, young Robert went to work in the company's power plant, then moved through each department, learning its functions and operations. He succeeded his uncle James as president of Johnson & Johnson in 1932.

Our Founder, Robert Wood "General" Johnson II

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It was in the depths of the Great Depression that Robert Wood Johnson II rose to the challenge of assisting employees and other members of his community as they coped with the worst economic disaster ever to befall this country. 

His passion was fueled in part by a tough childhood bout with rheumatic fever, which left him with an enlarged heart and repeated adult hospitalizations. Johnson learned firsthand the worst of health care.

In December 1936, with 12,000 shares of his own Johnson & Johnson stock—worth about $ 5.4 million in today’s dollars, Johnson endowed the Johnson New Brunswick Foundation. His aim: To help local people down on their luck.

Johnson—known as “the General” ever since he secured the commission of brigadier general in World War II—retained a laser-like focus on health and health care. At war’s end, he revived and replenished his philanthropy, renaming it the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in 1952.

By the early 1960's, Johnson had his own agenda for system reform and quality improvement: Patient care comes first; tear down the “rigid caste system” that impedes hospital fairness and efficiency; give nurses a greater say in patient care; professionalize nursing; give scholarships to talented low-income and minority students for careers.

Throughout his life, Robert Wood Johnson II maintained a philosophy of "enlightened self-interest," calling upon business and industry to "accept and fulfill its full share of social responsibility." This principle was expressed in the disposition of his own fortune. Upon his death on Juanuary 30, 1968, he left virtually all of it to the Foundation, creating one of the world's largest private philanthropies.

“There is no area of social responsibility more important than the care of the sick and the injured, and I think it best to confine my Foundation to the area of healing.”
 — Robert Wood Johnson II, Our Founder

Highlights from Our History

Since our beginnings as a small community foundation, we've had the opportunity to help shape key efforts to address the nation's needs—from the development of the 9-1-1 emergency call system to the improvement of care at the end of life. Today, that means working to build a comprehensive Culture of Health that gives individuals—no matter who they are, how much money they have, or where they live—the opportunity to pursue as healthy a life as possible.

RWJF original headquarters.

RWJF's original headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey

Our History and Evolution

Our History and Evolution

A dental student sitting in a lab.

Our History and Evolution

This video documents many of the key programs and projects through which the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to effect and influence meaningful social change.
This video documents many of the key programs and projects through which the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to effect and influence meaningful social change.

Our History and Evolution

This video documents many of the key programs and projects through which the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to effect and influence meaningful social change.

Featured Initiatives

9-1-1 Emergency Response

National 9-1-1 Emergency Response

In the early 70's, trauma was the leading cause of death between infancy and adults in their late 30's. In response, RWJF created a real-world national 9-1-1 emergency medical response system.

No Smoking sign

Tobacco Control

Over 20 years ago, RWJF introduced new approaches for research, prevention and treatment of tobacco use that have achieved extraordinary results, improving the public's health and saving millions of lives.

End-Of-Life Care

End-Of-Life Care

RWJF was instrumental in helping establish and legitimize the field of end-of-life care, and promoting the adoption of palliative care programs into hundreds of hospitals across the United States. 

Stories: Humble Beginnings