It is one of many paradoxes in the life of Robert Wood Johnson II, head of Johnson & Johnson for much of the 20th century, that he can be described as a self-made man born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
At least that is the Johnson encountered in a new biography by Lawrence G. Foster, who was public relations director of Johnson & Johnson for 25 years and is a trustee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Foster sees his former employer as a complex man, not always likable, who was obsessed with cleanliness and detail, and a competitive workaholic who permitted few, if any, close personal relationships. Foster interviewed Johnson’s family and employees, used his published writings, and had access to 250,000 personal and corporate documents in the private corporate archives.
When his father died of Bright’s disease in 1910, 16-year-old Robert (with his siblings) inherited a $2 million trust composed of Johnson & Johnson stock. In a stereotypic tale of the young scion starting at the bottom, Johnson went straight from prep school to the factory the very next year. Foster paints a picture of an earnest young man laboring side by side in easy rapport with Hungarian blue collar workers while exhibiting strong civic commitments. This side of Johnson is tempered by evidence that he was also a somewhat arrogant rich kid with a penchant for fast cars, planes, boats, and the New York social scene.
At 25, Johnson came into control of his trust and was made general superintendent of Johnson & Johnson, at a time when the company commanded a 90 percent share of the surgical dressings market. Twelve years later he was elected to the corporation’s Board of Control and became vice president and general manager, positions that gave him full control of the company. Under his direction, over the next 33 years, Johnson & Johnson grew from $11 million to $700 million in annual sales and expanded from New Jersey across the globe.
Perhaps because Foster has previously written a company-sponsored history of Johnson & Johnson, he sought to minimize the corporate detail in this biography (beyond the first 100 pages on the founding of the company). But without the broader context of business and political history, readers are at a disadvantage in interpreting the paradoxes of Johnson’s character.
Johnson’s early championing of women’s political activism seems at odds with the political dinners at the Johnson home where the women were expected to withdraw from the male discussion after dinner. Female hourly workers at Johnson & Johnson were paid less than males, and women did not appear in the ranks of corporate management in Johnson’s day. Foster makes few attempts to analyze these contradictions, or even to speculate why Johnson’s attitudes changed over time, as in his reported political swing to the right in the 1950s and 1960s.
The book does raise some significant themes such as the management philosophy spelled out in the Johnson & Johnson “Credo,” which put customers, workers, and management interests ahead of that of the stockholders. It also explores Johnson’s vision of national security based on a stable American way of life involving meaningful work and living wages—including a minimum wage far higher than that ever proposed by any government body; and his promotion of the “factories can be beautiful” concept. Unfortunately, historians or readers wishing to delve further will be hampered by the total absence of footnotes—even for direct quotes—in this 673-page book.
Similarly, there is little insight into the origins of the contemporary Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Johnson appears to have been a garden-variety, early-20th-century welfare capitalist. The portrait Foster paints of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation leading up to Johnson’s death is essentially that of a personal, somewhat local philanthropy, with Foster theorizing that part of Johnson’s interest in health care management had its roots in Johnson’s own lifelong poor health. There is a “postlude” on the subsequent history of the foundation, but it reads somewhat like a foundation annual report or public relations document.
In this biography Johnson has defied intimate portrayal. But even the glancing descriptions of his ideas, management philosophy, and political and philanthropic activities are enough to tantalize readers and make us hope for more substantive future histories of the man, his business, and his philanthropic legacy.
Jennifer L. Gunn is assistant professor of history of medicine at the University of Minnesota and is a contributor to The Development of the Social Sciences in the United States and Canada: The Role of Philanthropy.