As first names go, ours doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Even though it's been rather prominent for over a century, Hopkins still endures the occasional indignity of being called "John" Hopkins. Johns Hopkins' peculiar first name was simply a family affair; it had been his great-grandmother's maiden name.
His great-grandmother was Margaret Johns, the daughter of Richard Johns, owner of a 4,000-acre estate in Calvert County, Maryland. Margaret Johns married Gerard Hopkins in 1700; one of their children was named Johns Hopkins. The second Johns Hopkins, grandson of the first, was born in 1795 on his family's tobacco plantation in southern Maryland.
His formal education ended in 1807, when his parents, devout Quakers, decided on the basis of religious conviction to free their slaves and put Johns and his brother to work in the fields. Johns left home at 17 for Baltimore and a job in business with an uncle, then established his own mercantile house at the age of 24. He was an important investor in the nation's first major railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, and became a director in 1847 and chairman of its finance committee in 1855. Hopkins never married.
He may have been influenced in planning for his estate by a friend, philanthropist George Peabody, who had founded the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 1857. In 1867, Hopkins arranged for the incorporation of The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and for the appointment of a 12-member board of trustees for each. He died on Christmas Eve 1873, leaving $7 million to be divided equally between the two institutions. It was, at the time, the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history.