Henry Phipps Jr. was a lifelong friend and business partner of Andrew Carnegie. The second-largest shareholder in Carnegie Steel, he had a brilliant mind for finance and accumulated one of the 100 largest fortunes in American history. With that wealth, Phipps built extensive public parks and conservatories throughout his hometown of Pittsburgh. He funded research into the treatment, prevention, and cure of tuberculosis, an effort which led him to create reduced-cost housing for the working poor. Perhaps most notably, he funded the creation of the country’s first medical faculty in the field of psychiatry.
Born in 1839, Phipps grew up in Pittsburgh. “Harry,” as he was universally called, dropped out of school at age 14, taking work as a jeweler’s apprentice for $1.25 per week. At 17, he borrowed 25¢ from his brother and placed an ad in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. It read: “A willing boy wishes work.” Dilworth and Biddle, a company that made iron and railroad spikes, offered him a job as an errand boy.
“There was no holding back a boy like that,” Andrew Carnegie later reflected in his autobiography. Phipps spent five years taking night courses in accounting, during which time he was made bookkeeper and not long after, partner. Thomas Miller, another childhood friend, lent Phipps $800 to invest in a new railroad equipment company, headed by Andrew Kloman. The partnership flourished and was soon investing in steel mills. In 1865, it caught the eye of Andrew Carnegie, who bought out Kloman and Phipps. It was then that Harry decided to work for his boyhood pal—a job he would hold for the next 36 years.
Phipps handled corporate finance—“he’s my money-getter,” Carnegie often said. Known for his calm demeanor, Phipps was a diplomat among and negotiator between increasingly fractious shareholders. (More than anyone else, Phipps ensured that Carnegie Steel held together until its merger into U.S. Steel.) When Carnegie and his partners sold the business in 1901, Phipps held 11 percent of the company’s stock, second only to Carnegie’s 58 percent. (Phipps’ full statement to reporters: “Ain’t Andy wonderful!”) Phipps netted between $40 and $50 million from the sale—yet it would prove the basis for only part of his wealth. In 1907, he created a family office to oversee his fortune, which in time evolved into Bessemer Trust, now one of the nation’s leading wealth managers.
Phipps dedicated the majority of his money to charity, although the full extent of his gifts will never be known. He refused all interview requests and chose to keep most of his gifts private. “Unlike Carnegie, Harry shunned all publicity about his personal life and philanthropies,” note his granddaughter and a collaborator in their biography.
Phipps began his efforts to beautify the city of Pittsburgh in the 1880s, donating to public parks, baths, playgrounds, and gardens. He is perhaps best remembered for creating the Phipps Conservatory in 1893, which remains to this day one of America’s leading botanical gardens. In his dedication, Phipps made clear his desire to “erect something that will prove a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.” In an unusual stipulation, he required that the conservatory be open on Sundays, so that workingmen and their families could visit on their day of rest. Local ministers denounced the proposal, but Phipps insisted on it—and ultimately won the argument.
“For my part,” wrote Andrew Carnegie in The Gospel of Wealth, “I think Mr. Phipps put his money to better use in giving the working-men of Allegheny conservatories filled with beautiful flowers, orchids, and aquatic plants, which they, with their wives and children, can enjoy in their spare hours, and upon which they can feed their love for the beautiful, than if he had given his surplus money to furnish them with bread.”
After the sale of Carnegie Steel, some of Phipps’ first philanthropic projects involved improving the quality of health care for the poor. His first target: tuberculosis. In January 1903, he funded a new clinic in Philadelphia, dedicated to the study, treatment, and prevention of tuberculosis. The institute, which eventually merged with the University of Pennsylvania, made special efforts to reach African Americans afflicted by the disease. Later that year, Phipps created another such institute in Baltimore, under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In both cases, reported the New York Times, “All money needed will be furnished by Mr. Phipps.”
Once involved in the fight against tuberculosis, Phipps became increasingly interested in ways to improve housing for the urban working poor. In 1905, he donated $1 million to a new nonprofit to build homes for the poor in New York City. Now known as the Phipps Houses Group, this nonprofit has constructed over 6,000 apartments and for more than a century been among the city’s leading affordable-housing developers.
Phipps’ most enduring accomplishment may be his help in launching the academic discipline of psychiatry. In May 1908, while visiting the tuberculosis institute he had founded at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, he struck up a conversation with William Welch, dean of the medical faculty, who gave Phipps a copy of Clifford Beers’ A Mind That Found Itself. A month later, Phipps sent Welch a letter, offering $825,000, plus $60,000 annually for a decade, to endow the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic. “I understand that the building will be used both for treating and studying insanity,” wrote Phipps, “and this study of dethroned minds by our finest physicians may result in great works.” He remained committed to the school, funding it for the rest of his life, including a $1 million challenge grant in 1923 to improve faculty compensation and recruitment.
Phipps is one of the least-remembered great philanthropists of the early 20th century. He sought no recognition for his philanthropy; he never endowed a foundation. But his charitable giving did real and lasting good, improving Pittsburgh civic life, exploring new ways to fight poverty, advancing medical research, providing health care to the poor, and inspiring other donors. Long before his death in 1930, he was widely admired for his decency and kindness. James H. Bridge, the muckraking author of a caustic account of Carnegie’s rise, observed in a 1902 profile that Phipps’ career “is without parallel for a man as successful as he has been: he never made an enemy, nor lost a friend.”
~ Martin Morse Wooster