George Peabody
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George Peabody

George Peabody (b. 1795, d. 1869) was born on February 18, 1795. He was the first great modern philanthropist and one of the best known world figures of the 19th century.

Peabody was born a poor boy in South Danvers, Massachusetts — a town that would later change its name to Peabody in honor of its most famous son. His formal schooling ended when he was apprenticed, at the age of 11, to the owner of a general store. There he learned habits that were to serve him well in later life — how to deal with people, to keep accounts, to be responsible and honorable. When Peabody’s apprenticeship ended when he was 15, the ambitious, intelligent and precocious young man set out to seek his fortune.

During the next half century, he did indeed make a fortune, in the best rags-to-riches tradition. By the age of 17 he was managing a store in Georgetown in the District of Columbia, at 20 he was a partner in a wholesale drygoods business, and by the time he was 22 he was worth more than $40,000. For 20 years he conducted business in Baltimore, gradually developing into an international merchant and financier. After 5 business trips to Europe, in 1837 he decided to settle in London, where he established the banking house of George Peabody and Company, specializing in foreign exchange and American securities.

During Peabody’s many years in London he accumulated enormous wealth, which, as he neared retirement, he resolved to give away. Through gifts and legacies he distributed approximately $9 million to worthy causes in both his native country and the country of his residence. Many of his philanthropies concerned education.

Peabody provided financial support for the education of his nephew, O.C. Marsh, who received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale in 1860. It was at Marsh’s urging that Peabody provided $150,000 in 1866 to establish Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. In the same year, Peabody gave the same amount to Harvard to found the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

George Peabody died in London on November 4, 1869. His body received the rare honor of a temporary burial in Westminster Abbey, and then, according to his wishes, was brought home to America and laid to rest in Peabody, Massachusetts.

Portrait of George Peabody by an unknown artist. © YPM.