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One Hundred Years Ago

November 2023
2min read

On May 7 the Johns Hopkins Medical Hospital was dedicated in Baltimore. The hospital’s benefactor, Johns Hopkins, had been a banker and railroad executive in Maryland who decided to administer his fortune “for the good of humanity.” His seven-milliondollar bequest in 1867 provided for the joint construction of a hospital and medical school run on the most advanced European principles. The Johns Hopkins Medical School opened in 1893 and revolutionized the training of doctors. Most American medical schools had been little more than trade schools that accepted even high school graduates; after a year or two of lectures, students were free to practice medicine, though many had never even touched a real patient. Johns Hopkins from the beginning required a college education and a demanding entrance examination from its applicants, and its students learned medicine both in labs and at patients’ bedsides. Within a decade Johns Hopkins became one of the country’s preeminent centers for medical care and research.

∗On May 31 the Conemaugh Reservoir’s dam collapsed after heavy rains, unleashing a thirty-six-foot wall of water through the Conemaugh Valley in southwestern Pennsylvania. Residents of Johnstown, the valley’s largest town, had ignored warnings from engineers upstream that the dam was about to collapse. The flood killed more than twenty-two hundred people in ten minutes.

Earlier the rains had caused minor street flooding, in which children on holiday from school were frolicking when the deluge hit that afternoon. Survivors would later remember a torrent that “crushed houses like eggshells,” preceded by a black fog later known as the death mist. Most victims never saw the water coming, only heard its thunder. Indeed, it seemed more like an explosion than a flood to those who made it to higher ground. The water was hidden among a grinding mass of lumber, glass, barbed wire, dead cattle, and human bodies; the air was filled with a deafening roar, flying debris, and the terrifying black mist. Wreckage that accumulated under a nearby bridge caught fire that night; one journalist described it as an inferno that burned “with all the fury of the hell you read about—cremation alive in your own home … dear ones slowly consumed before your eyes, and the same fate yours a moment later.”

Hundreds of people would never be found; many hundreds more would never be identified. The flood washed away fully 10 percent of the population of the valley.

∗Andrew Carnegie spent the first half of his life amassing one of the largest fortunes in history. In the June issue of the North American Review , he explained why he would spend his remaining years giving it away.

“Rich men should be thankful for one inestimable boon,” Carnegie wrote in an article titled “Wealth.” “They have it in their power during their lives to busy themselves in organizing benefactions from which the masses of their fellows will derive lasting advantage, and thus dignify their own lives.…” But Carnegie was far from advocating revision of the capitalist system that allowed men like him to reap immense fortunes. He wrote: “Individualism will continue but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.”

Carnegie fulfilled the promise he made in his article, distributing $350,000,000 among a variety of educational and cultural institutions in his lifetime. He explained his charities this way: “The man who dies leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which was his to administer during life, will pass away ‘unwept, unhonored, and unsung,’ no matter to what uses he leaves the dross which he cannot take with him. Of such as these the public verdict will then be: The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.’”

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