The Most Generous Philanthropists in History

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History

By D.G. Hewitt

The word philanthropy literally means ‘the love of humanity’. However, it’s mostly associated with individuals who show their love for their fellow man in a specific way, namely through sharing their wealth. More specifically, the term is usually reserved for extremely wealthy individuals who use their good fortune to help others. History is full of such people.

Some choose to share their fortune due to their religious convictions. At other times, a billionaire who started out poor and then benefitted from a good education might want to ensure others get the same opportunities they enjoyed. Others might even give money away through guilt or through a desire to make art and culture accessible to the masses and not just the preserve of an elite few.

Whatever their reasons for giving, the biggest philanthropists have made genuine contributions to history. And in many cases, their legacies are still felt today. So, here we have some of the most wealthy and selfless generous men – and women – of all time:

George Peabody has been named as the father of modern philanthropy thanks to his generous giving. Wikimedia Commons.

1. George Peabody has been named the father of modern philanthropy as well as the ultimate rags-to-riches success story

Massachusetts’ own George Peabody is widely-cited as the father of modern philanthropy. That is, he has been credited with inspiring countless wealthy individuals to give some – or indeed, all – of their fortunes away to worthy causes. Peabody is also regularly cited as the ultimate American success story. Indeed, his is the ultimate rags-to-riches story, and he was able to die a happy, honorable man.

Peabody was born into poverty in the small town of South Parish in 1795. He left school at 11 and then went to work as an apprentice in the local general store. Here, he learned skills and habits that would stay with him for the rest of his life: hard work, diligence, and the importance of being responsible, honest and honorable. Staying in retail, he went on to manage a store in Georgetown and then, at the age of 20, he had risen to become a partner in a wholesale dry goods business.

For around 20 years, Peabody worked in Baltimore, establishing himself as a leading international merchant and financier. His work regularly took him to Europe and then, in 1837, he made the decision to make a life in London. It was in the British capital that he went into banking, setting up the house of George Peabody and Company. In later years, he would take on a certain J.P. Morgan as a partner.

It was only as he neared retirement that Peabody realized he didn’t want to die rich. So, he started giving away millions of dollars. Through gifts and legacies, he helped fund a number of educational projects, both in Britain and the United States. Then, when his nephew went to Yale, he decided to establish the Peabody Museum of Natural History at the prestigious university. This was soon followed by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard.

When Peabody died in November of 1869, he was granted the honor of being interred in Westminster Abbey for a short while (a right usually reserved for kings and queens). His body was finally brought back to his hometown – which had been renamed Peabody in honor of its most famous, and most generous son.