The Most Generous Philanthropists in History

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History

D.G. Hewitt - September 16, 2018

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:

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
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.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
William Wilberforce is celebrated as a leading figure in the abolition of slavery, but he was a notable philanthropist too. Third Sector.

2. William Wilberforce was born rich and devoted his life to abolishing the slave trade and to philanthropy

The English politician William Wilberforce is best remembered as one of the leading voices in the campaign to end Britain’s involvement in the international slave trade. And rightly so. Throughout the late-18th and early-19th centuries, he campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, with his efforts in Parliament leading to the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. In part, his work was inspired by his deep Christian faith. And it was this faith that led him to become one of Britain’s great philanthropists too.

Wilberforce was born in the city of Hull in 1759. His parents were wealthy, so their son didn’t have to worry about getting a job. Instead, he idled through Cambridge University and then dedicated his time to politics. He began as the Member of Parliament for his home city of Hull and then, in 1784, was promoted to a more influential seat, representing the county of Yorkshire. Three years later, he met the anti-slavery activist Thomas Clarkson. At last, he had found a cause to be passionate about, and he took the campaign into the heart of British politics.

At the same time, Wilberforce also became a born-again Christian. From the 1780s onwards, he started giving away large portions of his wealth. He funded missionary work in India and Africa, established the Church Mission Society and also the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, both charities that are still going strong. He even helped finance the establishment of a free colony in Sierra Leone for freed slaves to live in.

Wilberforce died in July 1833, just three days after Parliament passed the anti-slavery bill. In recognition of his life’s work, not least his generosity, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. To this day, he is fondly remembered in Britain and around the world as a pioneering social reformer and great philanthropist.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Andrew Carnegie , the Scottish-born American industrialist and philanthropist. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Andrew Carnegie wrote his own “Gospel” on how billionaires such as himself have a responsibility to give their wealth away

Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie made a huge fortune – and gave around 85% of it all away before he died. Understandably, he regularly tops lists of the greatest philanthropists of all time, and institutions bearing his name can be found around the world. What’s more, “The Gospel of Wealth,” his 1899 essay on how the rich should use their good fortune to benefit others, remains and influential – and controversial – today as it was more than 100 years ago.

Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1835 but emigrated to America with his parents as a teen. As a young man, he worked as a telegrapher. He invested his wages wisely and, by the time he was in his mid-20s, had significant interests in the railroad and oil businesses. Carnegie also specialized in selling bonds, but it was in steel where he was to make his money. Using all his savings, he established the Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh in 1892. Thanks to the construction boom, the firm did very well indeed and in 1901, he sold it to J.P. Morgan for $480 million.

Thanks to the money he made from the sale, Carnegie became America’s richest man. But he saw his wealth as a means to an end. As he argued in his “Gospel”, he believed private fortunes should be used to improve society, and he put his money where his mouth was. From 1901 until his death in 1919, he dedicated his life to large-scale philanthropy. He not only built Carnegie Hall in New York City, he also established Carnegie Mellon University, the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

He didn’t forget the country of his birth, either, plus he paid for some 3,000 community libraries to be opened right across the world. By the time of his death, Carnegie had given away around $350 million (equivalent to $77 billion at today’s rate), making him one of the most generous men who ever lived. He is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Sir Charles was knighted for his generous funding of schools and hospitals in modern-day Sri Lanka. Wikimedia Commons.

4. Sir Charles Henry de Soysa made a fortune in tea plantations and then transformed Ceylon through his generous giving

Not all the great 19th century philanthropists were American industrialists. Sir Charles Henry de Soysa was an entrepreneur and planter from Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) who used his significant wealth to improve the lot of the island’s people. Even today, he is regarded as one of Sri Lanka’s greatest ever individuals, remembered just as much for his charitable giving as for his astute business mind.

Born in 1836, De Sosya’s father was one of Ceylon’s most notable merchants. As a young boy, he served as an apprentice in the family business, learning how to manage estates and oversee international trades. According to many accounts, his benevolent nature was apparent from the start. Indeed, despite his status, he treated his employees fairly, unlike many estate managers on the island. With his apprenticeship under his belt, De Soysa went it alone. He invested in tea plantations, up until that point the preserve of Europeans, and then he diversified into producing everything from rice to rubber. He also invested in graphite mining and in both commercial and residential property.

By the time he was in his 30s, De Soysa was a very wealthy man indeed. Far from living the playboy lifestyle, however, he wanted to use his fortune to develop his homeland. To begin with, he focused on child mortality. He funded the construction of a maternity hospital and paid for specialist midwives. He also gave generously to numerous clinics and hospitals on the island. At the same time, De Soysa also set up free schools for the island’s children. Indeed, he was credited with looking after Ceylon’s people “from the womb to the tomb”.

De Soysa died in 1890 at the age of just 54. In recognition of his philanthropy, he was made Ceylon’s first Knight Bachelor and the legacy of generous paternalism can be seen almost everywhere in Sri Lanka today, from its hospitals and schools right through to its political parties.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Not all philanthropists were industrialists, several ancient Romans were big givers too. Wikimedia Commons.

5. Herodes Atticus made use of his family wealth and connections to be the first great ancient philanthropist

Centuries before wealthy European businessmen or American industrialists decided to give away large sums of money, Herodes Atticus was making a name for himself as one of the most generous men in ancient Rome. In fact, Herodes is possibly the earliest example we have of civic-minded philanthropy, plus he is also remembered for his writing and contributions to philosophy.

It’s believed Herodes was born to a fabulously wealthy Athenian family in the year 101AD. Since his father was a Senator, he enjoyed excellent connections and, as a young man, he benefitted from the best possible education. He also made friends with the future emperor Hadrian. When Hadrian did indeed come to power, Herodes was sent to Asia to tackle corruption in several major cities. Upon returning to Athens, he worked as a teacher and then, in the year 140, the Emperor Antonius Pius invited him to Rome to work as the private tutor of his sons.

After a short spell serving as Consul, he returned to his native Greece to settle down and enjoy family life. Determined that ordinary people could enjoy the same cultural and spiritual life as he himself did, Herodes became a notable philanthropist. He used his private wealth to fund a number of building projects. Under him, new stadiums and theatres were built in Athens, another stadium was constructed in Delphi, plus baths, aqueducts and temples were all built bearing his name.

When Herodes died, the people of Athens mourned him greatly. Many of his philanthropic projects had created large numbers of jobs, plus the completed works brought great joy to the city. He was given an honorable burial and his funeral took place in a stadium that he himself had commissioned. Sadly, almost all of his writing has been lost, though his reputation as one of the great philanthropists of the ancient world endues to this day.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Howard Hughes ensured a large part of his fortune went to fund medical research. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Howard Hughes made a fortune through the movies and aviation but left a legacy in medicine and healthcare

These days, Howard Hughes is often best remembered for his eccentric behavior, and above all for the OCD that dominated his later years. However, thanks to the work of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in particular, his generosity also endures. In his day, Hughes was one of the richest men on the planet. He was also one of the most generous, too, giving away vast sums of money through a range of philanthropic initiatives.

After making a name for himself as a producer in 1920s’ Hollywood, Hughes moved into aviation. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he spent vast amounts of cash on setting a series of world air speed records. And he was a huge success, too. Even today, Hughes is regarded as a key aviation pioneer and adventurer. But he wasn’t simply reckless. He also looked to the future, which is why he established his Medical Institute in 1953.

In fact, he’d been planning on earning a fortune and then giving it away for some time. When he was 19, he wrote a will and testament declaring that a medical institute be established bearing his name. Years later, he decided to establish such a center in his own lifetime, a decision partly-influenced by the fact that the IRS was pursuing him for a significant sum of money. The new institute was gifted all the stock its founder held in the Hughes Aircraft Company, effectively making the aerospace firm a non-profit entity.

When Hughes died in 1976, he passed without leaving a will. As a result, his fortune was divided up among his relatives rather than going to the Medical Institute. However, the center’s board sold its shares in Hughes Aircraft to General Motors in 1985 for a massive $5.2 billion. Today, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has an endowment of more than $15 billion, making it one of the largest private organizations devoted to medical research in the world.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Enriqueta Augustina Rylands’ statue stands in the Manchester library she funded. Creative Tourist.

7. Enriqueta Augustina Rylands married well and spent 20 years putting her inherited fortune to good use in Manchester

Enriqueta Augustina Rylands might have been born in Cuba in 1843, but she will be forever remembered in Manchester, England. She moved to the city at the start of the 1860s, joining relatives there. Soon after her arrival, she became friends with Martha, the wife of notable local merchant John Rylands. Tragically, Martha died in 1875, leaving John a widower. United in mourning, Enriqueta and John became close and, eight months later, they married.

On their wedding day, Enriqueta was in her early 30s, while her new husband was 74. For the next decade, she would nurse John as his health deteriorated. Finally, he died in 1888. As his widow, Enriqueta inherited his vast fortune. She dedicated the rest of her life to spending it wisely and in a way that would honor her late husband’s legacy. Most notably, she paid for the construction of the John Rylands Library in central Manchester, still regarded as one of the finest in the world.

Once the ornate library had been built, Enriqueta spent years looking for collections to fill its shelves. She spent huge sums of money on important works, determined that the people of Manchester could themselves read such books for free. At the same time, her philanthropy also extended to funding local medical institutions and missionary activities. For her work, she was granted the Freedom of the City of Manchester, the first woman to be awarded the honor.

When Enriqueta died in 1909, she bequeathed the John Rylands Library and its famous collections to the University of Manchester. A statue of her can be found inside the building, and she lies buried in the same vault as her beloved husband in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
John Hopkins is still remembered thanks to the institutions he used his fortune to establish. Wikimedia Commons.

8. John Hopkins was the ultimate self-made American man who became one of the country’s great philanthropists, giving us universities, hospitals and more

The name John Hopkins is known right around the world. But the Maryland native is hardly remembered for his business acumen, nor his entrepreneurial spirit. Rather, he is remembered for his philanthropy. Indeed, while Hopkins might have been one of the best business minds of 19th century America, it was his willingness to give money away rather than his ability to make it which is his ultimate legacy.

It all might have been so different, however. For a while, it looked like Hopkins would simply work in the family business. At the age of 17, he moved to Baltimore to work for his uncle in his grocery store. However, the two men fell out and Hopkins decided to go into business for himself. He set up his own wholesale firm and then invested his money in a range of enterprises. Above all, his investment in the booming railroad industry helped make him a fortune. In 1847, Hopkins retired from work at the age of just 52.

Though he had always been a charitable man himself, his friendship with George Peabody – cited as the father of modern philanthropy – inspired Hopkins to put money back into the city he loved. He gave money to a range of causes during his lifetime. And then after his death in 1873, he bequeathed more than $10 million (a fortune in those days) to medicine and education. His bequests led to the establishment of the world-famous John Hopkins Hospital, the School of Nursing and what is now known as the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Cornelius Vanderbilt set a generous precedent that his wealthy ancestors would follow. Wikimedia Commons.

9. Cornelius Vanderbilt built a fortune in shipping and railroads and was persuaded by his second wife to give millions of it away to the church

At the time of his death in 1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt had amassed the largest private fortune in the whole of the United States. He had also become a household name, famed not just for his wealth but for his generosity. Indeed, his philanthropy helped inspire numerous wealthy Americans who came after him, including his own descendants.

Vanderbilt’s origins were humble indeed. His father captained a boat ferrying passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. Naturally, young Cornelius followed in his footsteps and became a boat captain himself. However, he was ambitious. As a young man, he went into business for himself. Starting out with just one boat, his ruthlessness and business acumen meant that, by the 1840s, he was one of America’s biggest operators. Not content with this, in the 1860s, he expanded into the railroad business, building a second empire.

It wasn’t until he was semi-retired that Vanderbilt decided to give some of his money away. In 1869, his second wife convinced him to donate $1 million to the Church so that they could establish a private university. He agreed and Vanderbilt University was founded in Nashville. After that, he donated various sums, almost all of them substantial, to found or improve churches across America.

Though he might have been born poor, Cornelius Vanderbilt died very rich. He only gave away a small proportion of his vast fortune. However, in embracing philanthropy in his final years, he set an impressive example that later generations of Vanderbilt would follow.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Samuel Morley made a fortune in wool and used the money to fund adult education projects. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Samuel Morley was one of 19th century England’s richest businessmen but also a fair employer, abolitionist and a generous funder of educational projects for the poor

Writing in the 1870s, an observer of society life in Britain called Samuel Morley “one of the leading merchant princes and philanthropists of the century”. And the writer was correct on both counts. The Englishman was indeed one of the finest business minds of his time. He made a fortune in the wool business, while also earning himself a reputation as a fair employer and generous giver.

Morley was born in 1809, the youngest son of a Nottingham wool merchant. He went into the family business at an early age. Times were good and in 1860, his father and his brothers retired. Morley preferred to carry on, however, and took sole charge of the company. Under his guidance, the business grew rapidly, and he became very rich. Perhaps unusually for that time, his wealth was not built on the back of others’ misery. Morley was known as a fair employer with a keen interest in the wellbeing of the working man.

It was this interest in social justice that led Morley to philanthropy. He used his private fortune to establish schools and colleges in London, Bristol and Nottingham. Notably, he focused on adult education, hoping to give working men the chance to improve themselves. Alongside his generous giving, Morley was also a prominent voice in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. When he died in September of 1886, memorials were erected in several British cities, testament to the high regard in which he was held.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
John D. Rockefeller built a massive fortune from nothing and then gave much of it away. Wikimedia Commons

11. John D. Rockefeller built a huge family fortune, founded a dynasty and set a precedent for philanthropic giving

The Rockefeller name is synonymous with great wealth – and great generosity. And it all began with John Davison Rockefeller Sr., the man who built up the family fortune from almost nothing. Rockefeller is widely regarded to be the richest American of all time and the richest individual in all of modern history. He is also seen as one of the most important of the major philanthropists of the industrial era, and his legacy is still very much evident in America today.

Born into a large, Christian family in New York State in 1839, the young John started out as an apprentice bookkeeper at the age of 16. Before long, he had set up his own business. His fledgling firm focused not on oil drilling but on refining the oil – a wise move indeed. Over the subsequent years, his net worth grew rapidly. In fact, at one point he was controlling around 90% of all the oil being processed in the United States.

At his peak, Rockefeller is believed to have been worth the equivalent of $400 billion. After the U.S Supreme Court ordered his Standard Oil to be broken up, he spent the last 40 years of his life in retirement, devoting himself to giving his money away. Along with Andrew Carnegie, he pioneered the idea of ‘targeted philanthropy’. Like his peer, he also believed that he should use his wealth to help people better themselves. As such, much of his fortune was spent on education. He founded not only Rockefeller University but also the University of Chicago.

Rockefeller died in 1937 at the grand old age of 97. He willed that his considerable wealth be distributed among a number of foundations and trusts. This ensured that his family could continue to be engaged in philanthropic projects right across the world.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Warren Buffett has pledged to give almost all of his vast fortune away. CNBC.

12. Warren Buffett has made billions through wise investments and intends to give 99% of it away before he dies

The ‘Sage of Omaha’, Warren Buffet has built up a massive personal fortune through savvy investments. A career than has spanned almost 70 years has helped him become the third wealthiest man in the whole world with a net worth of around $85 billion. However, as well as his market acumen, Buffet is also known for his personal frugality and generosity. Indeed, he has pledged to give away 99% of his personal fortune, a gesture that makes him one of the greatest philanthropists of all time.

Born in Omaha in 1930, Buffett developed an interest in the markets and investing at an early age. After graduating from the University of Nebraska at the age of 19, he attended Colombia Business School. It was here that he honed his investment philosophy. In particular, he embraced the concept of ‘value investing’, and this has served as the foundation of his work ever since. Since 1970, Buffett has served as the chairman and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway – named after a textile company he bought out early in his business career – and over the decades, the holding company has invested widely and wisely.

For many years, Buffett has stated his intention to give most of his money away. In 2006, he announced he would give 84% of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to be used for philanthropic causes. Along with other billionaires, he also signed the Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge, plus he hosts regular fundraising events in which he shares his time and wisdom in exchange for charitable donations.

Notably, Buffett isn’t the only major philanthropist in his family. All of his three children, as well as his sister, have set up charitable foundations of their own, helping schools, hospitals and numerous community projects both in Nebraska as well as across the United States and the wider world.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
The eldest son of the billionaire Vanderbilt was a shrewd railroad investor and generous giver. Wikipedia.

13. William Henry Vanderbilt managed to both double the family fortune and yet give away millions to charitable foundations in less than a decade

As the eldest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Henry Vanderbilt inherited around $100 million when the business tycoon died in 1877. When he himself died just nine years later, the size of this legacy had almost doubled. But William was not just an astute businessman and savvy investor. He was also an enthusiastic philanthropist too, following his father’s example and giving extensively to a number of causes.

William was born in New Hampshire in 1821. From an early age, his domineering father oversaw his schooling and business education. Despite the family wealth, he started out as a clerk in a New York banking house, though by the 1860s, he was President of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. A few years later, he took over from his father as head of several other, hugely-profitable railroads and shipping lines. When the old man died, he expanded this area of the family business. He was wildly successful, so much so that he became known as America’s railroad king.

Thanks largely to his creation of the New York Central System and his expansion west, William Henry doubled the family fortune in just a few years. But he also gave away large sums, too. As well as supporting his father’s initiatives, most notably Vanderbilt University, he also supported a number of Christian projects. For instance, he was a major funder of the YMCA and helped finance bible study departments across America. At the same time, as a keen fan of the arts, William Henry used his personal fortune to establish the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, still regarded as one of the world’s finest.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Sir Run Run Shaw lived to 106 and helped establish hundreds of schools. BBC.

14. Sir Run Run Shaw was one of the richest men in the global movie business but is now best remembered in his native Hong Kong for the schools and hospitals he built

At some point in the mid-1920s, Runje Shaw was given a run-down cinema in order to repay a debt. His younger brothers soon followed him into the business, though of the family, it was to be the youngest brother Run Run who would go on to make a global name for himself. For several decades he was one of the most powerful men in the global movie industry. Naturally, he made a fortune, much of which he gave away.

Sir Run Run Shaw was born to an entrepreneurial family in eastern China in 1907. As a young boy, he started out helping his brother with his fledgling movie theatre business. At 19, however, he ventured out on his own. He travelled to Singapore and set up the Shaw Organisation. He started out with one cinema. By the time the Japanese invaded less than a decade later, Run Run had an empire of more than 130 venues.

After the war, he moved again. This time to Hong Kong. Here, he became a major producer and distributor. Millions watched his movies, and some were even exported to Western audiences. He added to his fortune by investing wisely in commercial TV before it became big, though he wisely chose to stay out of politics. Instead, he preferred to engage in philanthropy and over the years he gave away tens, perhaps even hundreds, of millions of dollars.

In Hong Kong, an estimated 5,000 buildings have Run Run’s name on them. He established schools, clinics and hospitals. He also set up the Run Run Institute of Chinese Affairs at Oxford University and, in 2008, he gave millions in aid to help survivors of a major earthquake in the Sichuan Province of China. He died in his beloved Hong Kong in 2014 at the age of 106.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Joseph Rowntree was never comfortable with the fortune he made through chocolate. Third Sector.

15. Joseph Rowntree made a fortune manufacturing chocolate but was so uncomfortable with his wealth that he established charitable trusts in order to give it away

Across northern and middle England in the 19th century, a number of Quaker businessmen enjoyed significant success. Their religious convictions meant that they were, almost without exception, model employers, concerned for the spiritual and physical well-being of their employers. Many of them were also uncomfortable with the wealth they started amassing. As such, they set up workers’ homes and other charitable foundations. Joseph Rowntree was the most notable of these men, and the legacy of his philanthropy can still be seen today.

Born in 1836, Rowntree’s father owned a grocery business in the city of York. As a young man, Joseph spent some time in London before moving back home. For a while he worked in the family business. However, in 1869, he sold his share of the firm to his older brother and joined his younger brother in a new venture, a cocoa and chocolate business. By 1890, Rowntree needed a new, larger factory and by 1902, he was employing more than 2,000 people and was a very rich man indeed.

Frugal by nature, Rowntree saw no need for his fortune. As a result, he set up three separate philanthropic trusts. These provided adult education, housing and spiritual counselling for people in York. Rowntree himself remained active in this philanthropy work until within five days of his death in 1925 at the age of 88. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation continues to work to “inspire social change through research, policy and practice”.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
John D. Rockefeller chose a life of giving over a career in business or politics. The Value.

16. John D. Rockefeller III dedicated his life to controlling his family’s philanthropic efforts, funding the arts, sciences and education

The grandson of one of the richest men who ever lived, John D. Rockefeller III could have been anything he wanted. Indeed, his brothers went into banking and politics, making big names for themselves. Ultimately, however, John preferred giving money away to making it. Along with his sister, he dedicated his life to philanthropy, putting the family fortune to good use through the establishment of several notable charitable initiatives.

Born in New York City in 1906, the eldest of five brothers, he had a privileged upbringing. He majored in economics at the prestigious Princeton University, graduating with high honors. However, a career in economics held little appeal. After graduation, he travelled the world for a year and then, upon his return to New York City, decided that he would take control of his family’s philanthropic interests. He would remain devoted to trying to make the world a better place right up until his death in a car accident in 1978.

In all, John sat on 20 boards, including those of some of the biggest professional bodies in all of America. He led the development of the Rockefeller University while at the same time indulging his interest in international relations and, above all, in US-Asian relations. As the founder of the Asia Society, he has been credited with driving greater levels of cooperation between the United States and several Asian nations, above all with Japan. Additionally, as the founder of the United Negro College Fund, he helped numerous young African-American adults pursue a higher education.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
John Paul Getty Jr. moved to England and became a major patron of the arts. Bustle.

17. John Paul Getty Jr. could only manage to escape the shadow of his famous billionaire father by making a name for himself as a generous patron of the arts

Even though he was one of the most notable philanthropists in modern British society, John Paul Getty Jr. was never really able to escape the shadow of his father, the founder of the Getty Oil Company. Indeed, he had a largely troubled life, though in his later years, he enjoyed peace and prosperity in England. To a significant extent, such peace was a result of his charitable work, the one area where he could distance himself from his notoriously miserly old man.

Born Eugene Getty in 1932, he adopted the name John Paul Getty Jr. as a young man. This is despite the fact that he never enjoyed a good relationship with his billionaire father. He travelled the world extensively throughout his youth before he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. Upon leaving service, he met his wife and settled down in California. He accepted the lowest possible position in the family business, pumping gas, an attitude which impressed his father.

In the 1960s, he was made president of the family firm’s Italian operation, though his time in Europe was beset by addiction and the infamous kidnapping of his son by the mafia. While drying out and coming off drugs, Getty Jr. moved to England. He bought an old mansion and renovated it. He threw himself into his philanthropic endeavours. It’s estimated he gifted more than $170 million to charitable causes, above all those associated with the arts. He also gave millions to the church, plus he set up a significant charitable trust to support the arts and social welfare.

It was Getty Jr.’s philanthropic work rather than his family name which earned him his 1987 knighthood. However, it wasn’t until 1997, when he renounced his American citizenship, that he was allowed to refer to himself as ‘Sir Paul’. He died in his beloved London in 2003 at the age of 70.

The Most Generous Philanthropists in History
Bill Gates set up his own foundation to direct his philanthropic efforts. CNBC.

18. Bill Gates was at one point the richest man in the world but is working hard to be the most generous philanthropist on the planet

For almost two decades, Bill Gates was the undisputed richest man on the planet. While he might have now lost that title, he is arguably the world’s biggest philanthropist. Indeed, while Gates made his fortune in computer software, he is now equally as famous for his philanthropy work and his commitment to give away 99% of his personal wealth before he dies.

Gates, who was born in Seattle in 1955, stepped down as the chairman of Microsoft in 2014. He founded the company while barely out of his teens. He built it up into one of the world’s biggest companies, with its software used in home computers right around the world. Gates amassed a huge personal fortune. But in 2008, he set up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife. Its sole purpose is to use the money Gates made through Microsoft and other ventures to make the world a better place. Gates has also succeeded in encouraging other billionaires, most notably the investor Warren Buffet, to donate large portions of their fortunes to the Foundation.

Over the years, Gates has cited famous American philanthropists such as Carnegie and Rockefeller as influences. In particular, he has adopted their philosophy of ‘targeted philanthropy’. With his money, Gates focuses on health issues in particular. Gates has devoted huge amounts of money to research into infectious disease control, combating TB and preventing deaths from malaria and other diseases.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“George Peabody.” Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

“William Wilberforce, Antislavery Politician.” Christianity Today.

“Andrew Carnegie: Pioneer, Visionary, Innovator.” Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“Herodes Atticus.” Encyclopaedia Britannica

“Hughes from Erratic Tycoon to Major Philanthropist.” The Washington Post, December 1988.

“First Impressions: Enriqueta Rylands.” The University of Manchester.

“John Hopkins, Philanthropist (1795-1873).”

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