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George Peabody (1795-1869) was a true American success story, working his way up from poverty to become an international merchant, financier, and philanthropist.

Born in South Danvers, Massachusetts, he only received a fourth grade education. Entering the dry goods business while still a teenager, he relocated to Baltimore after his brother’s store burned down. There, he worked his way from the warehouse to senior partner and made a small fortune. Soon enough, he became an international player, trading goods and cash across the Atlantic Ocean, and even negotiating (without commission) an $8 million loan for the cash-strapped state of Maryland. In 1837, he moved to London and opened a merchant banking house. Eventually his fortune totaled about $20 million dollars.

Peabody was just as adept at giving that money away as he was at earning it. His philanthropic ventures included:

• The Peabody Institute in Baltimore, which contained a library of 250,000 volumes, an art gallery, and a music conservatory, now part of Johns Hopkins University.

• The Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.

• The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

• The Peabody Education Fund for poor Southern US children, with a $3.5 million endowment.

• The Peabody Donation Fund, $2.5 million to provide housing to poor people in London.

A statue was erected in London and his birthplace in Massachusetts, South Danvers, was rechristened Peabody in his honor.

Peabody is regarded as the founder of modern philanthropy because of his motives in giving away much of his fortune. Before him, philanthropists generally had religious motives, and their works were designed to save souls or fulfill a pious imperative. Peabody set out not to save souls but to save minds, to provide the poor with a cultural education that they could not have in their current circumstances, the education that he was denied. In a letter to his nephew, he wrote:
Deprived as I was, of the opportunity of obtaining anything more that the most common education I am well qualified to estimate its value by the disadvantages I labour under in the society which my business and situation in life frequently throws me, and willingly would I now give twenty times the expense of attending a good education could I possess it, but it is now too late for me to learn and I can only do to those that come under my care, as I could have wished circumstances had permitted others to have done by me.
Peabody’s liberal views of giving transformed philanthropy and influenced later philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

Sources include:britannica.com; Miles Harvey, The Island of Lost Maps

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