Henry Phipps Jr. was a lifelong friend and business partner of Andrew Carnegie. The second-largest shareholder in Carnegie Steel, he had a brilliant mind for finance and accumulated one of the 100 largest fortunes in American history. With that wealth, Phipps built extensive public parks and conservatories throughout his hometown of Pittsburgh. He funded research into the treatment, prevention, and cure of tuberculosis, an effort which led him to create reduced-cost housing for the working poor. Perhaps most notably, he funded the creation of the country’s first medical faculty in the field of psychiatry.
Born in 1839, Phipps grew up in Pittsburgh. “Harry,” as he was universally called, dropped out of school at age 14, taking work as a jeweler’s apprentice for $1.25 per week. At 17, he borrowed 25¢ from his brother and placed an ad in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. It read: “A willing boy wishes work.” Dilworth and Biddle, a company that made iron and railroad spikes, offered him a job as an errand boy.
“There was no holding back a boy like that,” Andrew Carnegie later reflected in his autobiography. Phipps spent five years taking night courses in accounting, during which time he was made bookkeeper and not long after, partner. Thomas Miller, another childhood friend, lent Phipps $800 to invest in a new railroad equipment company, headed by Andrew Kloman. The partnership flourished and was soon investing in steel mills. In 1865, it caught the eye of Andrew Carnegie, who bought out Kloman and Phipps. It was then that Harry decided to work for his boyhood pal—a job he would hold for the next 36 years.
Phipps handled corporate finance—“he’s my money-getter,” Carnegie often said. Known for his calm demeanor, Phipps was a diplomat among and negotiator between increasingly fractious shareholders. (More than anyone else, Phipps ensured that Carnegie Steel held together until its merger into U.S. Steel.) When Carnegie and his partners sold the business in 1901, Phipps held 11 percent of the company’s stock, second only to Carnegie’s 58 percent. (Phipps’ full statement to reporters: “Ain’t Andy wonderful!”) Phipps netted between $40 and $50 million from the sale—yet it would prove the basis for only part of his wealth. In 1907, he created a family office to oversee his fortune, which in time evolved into Bessemer Trust, now one of the nation’s leading wealth managers.
Phipps dedicated the majority of his money to charity, although the full extent of his gifts will never be known. He refused all interview requests and chose to keep most of his gifts private. “Unlike Carnegie, Harry shunned all publicity about his personal life and philanthropies,” note his granddaughter and a collaborator in their biography.
Mr. and Mrs. Henry Phipps
Phipps began his efforts to beautify the city of Pittsburgh in the 1880s, donating to public parks, baths, playgrounds, and gardens. He is perhaps best remembered for creating the Phipps Conservatory in 1893, which remains to this day one of America’s leading botanical gardens. In his dedication, Phipps made clear his desire to “erect something that will prove a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.” In an unusual stipulation, he required that the conservatory be open on Sundays, so that workingmen and their families could visit on their day of rest. Local ministers denounced the proposal, but Phipps insisted on it—and ultimately won the argument.
Phipps is one of the least-remembered great philanthropists of the early 20th century. He sought no recognition for his philanthropy; he never endowed a foundation. But his charitable giving did real and lasting good, improving Pittsburgh civic life, exploring new ways to fight poverty, advancing medical research, providing health care to the poor, and inspiring other donors. Long before his death in 1930, he was widely admired for his decency and kindness. James H. Bridge, the muckraking author of a caustic account of Carnegie’s rise, observed in a 1902 profile that Phipps’ career “is without parallel for a man as successful as he has been: he never made an enemy, nor lost a friend.”
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