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This month in 1845: The birth of Robert Wood Johnson

A name that became part of a household brand
Birth of Robert Wood Johnson

Even one of the largest, most well-known companies in the world has to start somewhere. And Johnson & Johnson, which recently posted 2013 revenues of $71.3bn, is no different, stemming all the way back to 1886 and three brothers whose name would go down in healthcare history.

The eldest of these brothers was Robert Wood Johnson, born in Pennsylvania on February 20, 1845.

Robert's life in healthcare started young, becoming an apprentice in 1861 at the age of 16 at Wood & Tittamer, an apothecary in Poughkeepsie. During this apprenticeship, Robert learnt to mix medicinal plasters, and in 1864 he set off to New York City to further his career in wholesale medication.

This ambition led to a partnership with a businessman called George Seabury and in 1873, the two launched a business called Seabury & Johnson. However, the relationship between the two was rocky, and there were disagreements on the appointment of both George Seabury and Robert Wood Johnson's family members.

It was during this time that Robert became aware of the work of British surgeon Sir Joseph Lister, who pioneered the use of antiseptics in surgery. Robert is said to have seen Sir Joseph speak and been inspired to start a business producing sterile surgical dressings.

However, as the disagreements with Seabury escalated, Robert left the business in 1880 selling his shares to his former partner.

While all this was taking place, Robert's two younger brothers, James Wood Johnson and Edward Mead Johnson, had set up their own family business, combining their surnames to create the iconically simple Johnson & Johnson brand.

With Robert now free from his previous business with Seabury, the prodigal son returned to the family and entered partnership with his brothers in 1886, bringing a large amount of capital to what was then a small, struggling company.

Robert's addition was the boost J&J needed to get the company off the ground and begin its journey to being a dominant force in healthcare, adding business acumen to Edward's marketing experience and James' engineering skills.

The elder sibling also took over management of the company as it began to grow, and J&J even entered the medical education market just two years later in 1888 with the publication of Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment, which became a standard for teaching physicians about the importance of sterile surgery.

Under Robert Wood Johnson, J&J built its early reputation on products now common in every home, producing the first commercial first aid kit in 1888, a maternity kit in 1894, the first mass-produced sanitary towel for women in 1896 and dental floss just a few years later.

This march of progress was led by Robert, who continued in his role at J&J until his death in 1910 at the age of 65.

Despite losing its leader, J&J's growth showed no signs of stopping, with Robert's younger brother James Wood Johnson at the helm. Under James' leadership, J&J's line of everyday inventions continued to expand, include the launch of the now ubiquitous (in the US at least) Band-Aid adhesives for small wounds.

In addition to new products, James also carried on J&J's expansion into other markets, including the UK in 1924, as well as Mexico, South Africa and Australia in the short years after.

It was from 1932, however, that J&J would achieve its biggest growth, with the appointment of Robert Wood Johnson II – the son of Robert Wood Johnson – as the company's chair following the death of his uncle James.

Robert Wood Johnson II was the one who turned J&J from one entity into the decentralised group of companies that exists today, establishing such businesses as Ortho Research Laboratories to research women's health products and surgical product business Ethicon.

It was in the 1950s when J&J began to enter the pharma market, acquiring McNeil Laboratories in the US and Cilag Chemie in Europe, and purchasing Belgian company Janssen Pharmaceutica in 1961.

J&J pressed on into the pharma market after Robert Wood Johnson II stepped down, marketing successful antipsychotics like Haldol (haloperidol) and developing huge-selling and life-enhancing products, such as Risperdal (risperidone) and Remicade (infliximab).

Few brands achieve household name status, but even fewer companies have their name in almost every household in the US. It's been 169 years since the birth of Robert Wood Johnson and his name, along with his brothers', definitely still lives on.

Article by
Thomas Meek

PMGroup editor

20th February 2014

From: Research, Sales, Marketing, Healthcare



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