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Johns Hopkins was born on May 19, 1795 on a tobacco plantation ( "Whitehall ") in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. His first name, Johns, (not John) was a family name. (His great-grandmother, Margaret Johns, married Gerard Hopkins, and they named their son Johns Hopkins, whose name was then passed on to his grandson.) His parents were Samuel Hopkins (1759-1814), of Anne Arundel County, and Hannah Janney (1774-1864), of Loudon County, Virginia. In 1807, the Hopkins family, who were members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), freed their slaves, which meant that Johns had to discontinue his formal education in order to help out on the plantation.
In 1812, Johns went to Baltimore to work in the wholesale grocery business of his uncle, Gerard Hopkins. While living with his uncle's family, Johns and his cousin, Elizabeth, fell in love, but the prejudice against the marriage of first cousins was especially strong among Quakers. Neither Johns nor Elizabeth ever married. After seven years with his uncle, Johns Hopkins went into business with three of his brothers, forming the wholesale provision house, Hopkins Brothers. The firm shipped goods via conestoga wagon to North Carolina and Virginia in exchange for whiskey, which was sold in Baltimore under the brand of Hopkins' Best.
Johns Hopkins, however, made his great fortune by investing his money wisely in all sorts of ventures, most notably the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, of which he became a Director in 1847 and Chairman of the Finance Committee in 1855. He was also President of Merchants' Bank and director of many others. In 1867, he gave consideration to the disposition of his tremendous wealth and, on August 24, he incorporated The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital. After his death on December 24, 1873, his will was probated, and his fortune of seven million dollars was divided equally between the two institutions that bear his name.
If you are interested in reading more about Johns Hopkins, there is only one biography, by his cousin, Helen Hopkins Thom, Johns Hopkins: A Silhouette (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1929). There are also several articles about him:
Jacob, Kathryn A., "Mr. Johns Hopkins," The Johns Hopkins Magazine, January 1974, pp. 13-17.
Franz, Caroline Jones, "Johns Hopkins," American Heritage, 27 (February 1976), pp. 31-33, 98-102.
Myers, Gerry O.,"The Legacy of Johns Hopkins," Maryland, Spring 1983, pp. 26-29.