John D. Lankenau
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, John Diederich Lankenau was perhaps the leading Lutheran layman in the United States. He was president of the German Hospital of the City of Philadelphia from 1869 until his death in 1901. It was at his instigation that deaconesses were brought from Germany to work as nurses in the hospital. He founded the Mary J. Drexel Home and Philadelphia Motherhouse of Deaconesses.
John, the eldest child, was born on March 18, 1817, in Bremen, Germany. He left his parents’ home on August 4, 1836, at the age of 19, sailing for Baltimore, Maryland. Upon arriving in Baltimore on September 15, 1836, he spent a few days with a school friend, and then continued on to Philadelphia where he took up his new position at Wicht, Warner, & Co. After 10 years in Philadelphia, Lankenau became a partner with Wicht’s nephew in the new firm of Wicht & Lankenau.
On October 9, 1848, Lankenau married Mary Drexel. Shortly into their marriage, the couple faced the tragedy of losing a child. Mary died on May 27, 1873. Both Lankenau's son and daughter died at a young age, so Lankenau was left with no immediate family. He was 65 years old.
In the years after his marriage, Lankenau, who had become a citizen of the United States in 1847, had done very well in business. Lankenau was able to retire from the business that created his wealth and pursue other interests and endeavors. When his father-in-law, Francis M. Drexel, died, Lankenau was one of the executors of his will. It was through these duties that he became involved with the German Hospital of the City of Pennsylvania. This hospital was built for the purpose of serving German immigrants living in Philadelphia. Mr. Drexel had been the hospital board’s treasurer, and Lankenau was looked upon to take his place as a representative of the Drexel family. Three years later he became a director of the hospital and in January, 1869, he was elected its second president. Other highlights during the first years of Lankenau’s presidency include the following: began free dispensary (outpatient clinic) service, established the medical library, appointed a hospital apothecary, and began ambulance and telephone service. He remained as a very effective president of the German Hospital until his death.
During his early years as president of the German Hospital, Lankenau tried to increase the spirit and efficiency of the hospital. Up until this time, he had not been active in the church. One of Lankenau’s concerns for the hospital was to secure good nurses, which were in short supply. He turned to the church in Germany, where the deaconess movement was known for its exemplary service in nursing.
In 1884, an ambitious building program, financed by a personal gift of Lankenau, was completed. A four-story wing added to the hospital was given a simple inscription, “In Memory of a Wife, Son, and Daughter.” The rest of the hospital was enlarged, and to it was added a modern operating room with amphitheater, a glass-enclosed veranda for patient use, a large elevator capable of holding an ordinary bed, and large water tanks with fire hoses connected to each floor. Several other new buildings comprised the rest of the campus.
Lankenau with deaconesses, 1886.
Lankenau continued to take an interest in the deaconesses as well as the hospital. Construction began on the Mary J. Drexel Home for the Aged and Philadelphia Motherhouse of Deaconesses on September 20, 1886. The building’s construction was financed entirely by Lankenau. On December 6, 1888, the dedication of the Mary J. Drexel Home for the Aged and Philadelphia Motherhouse of Deaconesses occurred and less than one month later, the first new deaconess was consecrated on January 4, 1889.
In his last years, Lankenau continued to work actively on the boards of the hospital and the motherhouse. He was a modest and humble man who did not seek honors for himself. Others, however, honored Lankenau during his lifetime and after his death.
This series comprises personal and business records. Records date from 1816 to 1987, but the bulk is from 1883-1901. Record types include personal and business correspondence, financial records, letterpress books, newspaper articles, documents such as marriage records and birth and death certificates, last will and testament, records of the disposal of his estate such as estate sale books, a hymnbook, notebooks, scrapbooks, published books, photographs, and photograph albums. Materials are in English and German, with one letter in French. Several of the German records have been translated into English. These records provide only a broad outline of Lankenau’s early life, although his biography and the personal letters give some brief but informative insights into his character. His later life, especially the photographic record of his last two years at Cape May Point, are very well documented.
His munificent deeds, his self-sacrificing spirit and his whole-souled generosity have and always will form a Monument which will be as lasting as the sands of time.
-Dr. Frese, chief physician of the German Hospital