Eastman, George

A self-motivated inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, George Eastman (1854-1932) revolutionized the photography and film industries. Eastman's importance to philanthropy is expansive. He provided contrast to the Rockefellers and Carnegies, the only other donors of his magnitude at that time. Where they endowed foundations and were very visible with their philanthropy, Eastman gave away all of his money personally and went to great pains to do so quietly and privately.

Biographical Highlights

George Eastman (1854-1932) was a self-motivated inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist who revolutionized the photography and film industries. George founded the Eastman Kodak Company after inventing a chemical emulsion and machine to apply the emulsion to dry plates, thus making the taking of pictures outside of a studio much easier. The process eliminated the need for extensive equipment out in the field. These and other inventions produced by his company were the beginning of modern photography and the motion picture industry.

Naturally, with this success came a good deal of wealth and an opportunity for Eastman to decide how to use it. Luckily, Eastman's roots provided a strong commitment to philanthropy from before his birth, starting with the participation of his grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles in the Underground Railroad (Brayer 1996, 12). Committed to education, Eastman's father founded a college that would serve as a model for later business schools. George made his own early donations at Sunday school and to those less fortunate than he. Ultimately, with wealth, Eastman made unprecedented donations to the University of Rochester, M.I.T., Tuskegee Institute, hospitals, dental health clinics, an orchestra hall, and music school in his hometown, and employees of Eastman Kodak Company.

Historic Roots

George Eastman was born on July 12, 1854, to Maria Kilbourn and George Washington Eastman in the village of Waterville, New York. George's parents were both raised in abolitionist homes that were active parts of the Underground Railroad. George's father was an ambitious man with an entrepreneurial spirit. George W. founded Eastman Mercantile College in Rochester, New York, in 1842. This school was a prototype for later business schools (Garraty and Carnes 1999, 248). George W. also had a successful nursery business (Brayer 1996, 18).

George endured several family tragedies in his youth. When he was age seven, his father died. Maria, George's Mother, was left with very little. George W. had sold the nursery years earlier and her late husband's partner controlled the business school. Maria turned to taking in borders to provide for her family (Ibid., 19). George resented that his mother had to cook and clean for strangers to provide for her family. One of Eastman's two older sisters, Katie, was an invalid because of polio. She died when he was sixteen. Katie was the recipient of some of George's earliest philanthropy - he bought her things and paid for her to take carriage rides (Ibid., 22).

George was educated in both private and public schools until he dropped out at the age of thirteen to get a job and help with the family expenses (Traub 1997, 104). He first worked as a messenger boy at an insurance company. Later, he began selling insurance. Then, after studying accounting at night at home, he began work as a junior clerk at Rochester Savings Bank (Kodak 2001). By the time he was hired at the Bank, George had already begun making charitable donations. "Account books from 1868 to 1874 list entries such as contributions to his Sunday school and 'the poor unfortunate who lost his fingers'" (Garraty and Carnes 1999, 249). Many of these early experiences take on greater import when viewed in light of his later philanthropy.

It was also while Eastman worked at Rochester Savings Bank that he became interested in photography. He had noticed that many of the bank's wealthier customers made a significant amount of their wealth in real estate and decided to begin similar investing. One of his co-workers, who had been part of Powell's historic trip through the Grand Canyon, suggested that he take photographs of land that he intended to purchase, especially on a trip to Santo Domingo that Eastman was planning (Brayer 1996, 24).

Though George never went to Santo Domingo, he did take the advice of his co-worker and purchased a camera to document land purchases. Yet, he struggled with the difficulty of the equipment available at the time. Even when he mastered the technique of wet plate photography, he was annoyed by the need to carry an entire darkroom with him to take pictures in the field. Eastman was in the habit of reading European scientific journals about photography when, in 1878, he read about a new type of photography that used dry plates. The process thereby reduced the amount of equipment needed for outdoor photography (Garraty and Carnes 1999, 248).

At the end of his day at the bank, George began working in his mother's kitchen, attempting to develop his own formula for the coating needed to produce dry plates. By 1879, he had developed a very high quality emulsion, the light sensitive chemical mixture that makes photography possible. He also invented a machine for applying the emulsion to the glass plates. He patented the machine in Britain and began the company that would eventually become Eastman Kodak Company (Kodak 2001). This company, and the inventions that Eastman and his employees developed, created both the modern photography industry and, in collaboration with Thomas Edison, the motion picture industry (Traub 1997, 110). The Eastman Kodak Company made George Eastman one of the wealthiest men of his day.

Eastman had no children and never married. For this reason, he felt free to donate his entire fortune to the charities in which he believed. Elizabeth Brayer, one Eastman's biographers, estimates that Eastman donated 125 million dollars to these charities. This level of giving made Eastman one of the four largest donors in history to that point (Capital Research Center 2002). Despite this level of giving, Eastman's philanthropy is largely unknown outside of the institutions to which he donated.

This lack of recognition is partly due to Eastman, who worked hard to maintain his privacy. In one of the now infamous stories of Eastman protecting his privacy, George donated over $22 million in cash and Kodak stock to Massachusetts Institute of Technology over a period of eight years, on the condition that his donations remain anonymous. Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, then head of M.I.T., invented the name "Mr. Smith" for the anonymous donor to help protect Eastman's privacy. For eight years the hounds were out and yet unable to discover the identity of the elusive Mr. Smith despite many clues given by Maclaurin himself. Mr. Smith was immortalized in song by M.I.T. students at the time (Ibid.).

Finally, in 1918 George pledged an additional $4 million in Kodak stock to M.I.T. and consented to the revealing of Mr. Smith's identity, both on the condition that other donors match his donation by December 31, 1919. Maclaurin raised the money; but the effort took a toll on his health and, in December 1919, he contracted pneumonia. The speech he was to give on January 10 of the following year had to be given by others. Unfortunately, Maclaurin died the next week (Ibid.).

Eastman developed a spinal cord disease later in life that made it increasingly difficult to maintain his active lifestyle and made him increasingly dependant on others (Traub 1997, 117). He set his effects in order and, on March 14, 1932, asked over a small group of friends to witness some changes to his will. After a friendly chat with the group, at seventy-seven years of age, George Eastman asked them to leave and retired to his room where he placed a towel over his chest and shot himself through the heart (Brayer 1996, 523).


Eastman's importance to philanthropy is expansive. He provided contrast to the Rockefellers and Carnegies, the only other donors of his magnitude at that time. Where they endowed foundations and made great noise with their philanthropy, Eastman gave away all of his money personally and went to great pains to reduce the notoriety of his gifts. Speaking in 1923, George Eastman explained,
"If a man has wealth, he has to make a choice, because there is the money heaping up. He can keep it together in a bunch, and then leave it for others to administer after he is dead. Or he can get into action and have fun, while he is still alive. I prefer getting into action and adapting it to human needs, and making the plan work." (Capital Research Center 2002)

He deplored the passing on of wealth, saying that those who passed wealth to children created "wastrels, race-track touts and whoremongers of their sons and gilded parasites of their daughters" (Ibid.).

Where other industrialists often made their money at the expense of their employees, Eastman worked in partnership with his employees and compensated them in ways that others of his day would never have done. He even made the first worker dividend payments out of his own wealth and not the company coffers. Later, he would give $10 million worth of Kodak stock to his employees (McGraw-Hill 1973).

Eastman was also a philanthropist who involved himself in the details of the organizations he funded, requiring that the buildings he funded have very little ornamentation to avoid wasting money. In the hospital associated with the University of Rochester, that he helped fund, he insisted that the corners of the stairwells be painted bright white because he believed that "only a hardened sinner would spit in a white corner" (Capital Research Center 2002).

In addition, Eastman focused almost exclusively on causes that had direct local impact and only on causes that had affected his life directly. According to Blake McKelvey, the chief historian for Eastman's hometown, Rochester was largely remade in George's image because of his concentration on local causes (Ibid.). This is one of the reasons that Rochester, a relatively small upstate New York town, has maintained its prominence on the world's stage even in the shadow of the big city to its south.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

George Eastman participated in the philanthropic sector for most of his life, becoming one of the largest American donors of his time. Eastman's philanthropy focused on causes that had a direct impact on his life. He did not make donations to a large number of organizations, as compared to his contemporaries. He did not set up a perpetually endowed foundation, as did others. Nor did he publicize his philanthropy. For these reasons, primarily, he is relatively unknown as a philanthropist, despite the enormity of the donations he made.

An example of a cause in which Eastman became involved, stemmed from a boyhood problem. George and his mother both had trouble with their teeth. In 1917, one of George's first philanthropic endeavors, after making his fortune in the photography industry, was to set-up free dental clinics in Rochester and New York that served both children and adults. He later established such clinics in London, Paris, Stockholm, Brussels, and Rome, all cities where his Kodak Company had factories (Garraty and Carnes 1999, 250).

At a very personal level, George's sister Katie provided the inspiration for future gifts to health facilities. She was very precious to him and, yet, she spent much of her life with severe medical difficulties and died while still young. Katie's difficulties, along with those of Maria, George's mother, and George W. can explain why millions of George's dollars were donated to the University of Rochester's medical school and its affiliated hospitals.

Similarly, George's parents had placed great importance on education, with George's father even founding a prototype for America's first business schools. Despite what others perceived as a dislike of his father, and his own decision to leave school at an early age, George's largest gifts were made primarily to institutions of higher learning. Eastman is known to have given $54.5 million to the University of Rochester in his hometown. He also gave in excess of $26.5 million to M.I.T. In fact, in a single year, 1924, Eastman donated $30 million to four institutions of higher learning: University of Rochester, M.I.T., Hampton Institute, and Tuskegee Institute (Capital Research Center 2002). He is also known to have given monetary donations and equipment to the Mechanics' Institute (now Rochester Institute of Technology) as early as 1889. Ironically, Eastman was making monetary donations when his salary was only sixty dollars a week (Kodak 2001). In further support for excellence in education, Eastman created a professorship of American studies at Oxford University (Garraty and Carnes 1999, 250).

George also loved music from a young age (Brayer 1996, 21). He donated vast amounts of his wealth to create the Eastman School of Music and helped form the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (now the Eastman Rochester Philharmonic). Within the Eastman School of Music, George even dedicated a concert hall, Kilbourn Hall, to his mother Maria Kilbourn (Kodak 2001).

In the broader context of philanthropy, his institution of employee dividends and profit sharing, life insurance, retirement annuities, disability plans and other employee-focused benefits set him apart from the other major industrialists of his day. They, unlike George, had no such concern for their employees and did not bring their philanthropy into their own factories as did Eastman (Garraty and Carnes 1999, 249).

Key Related Ideas

Among the many important topics related to the life and philanthropy of George Eastman are: Worker's Rights, invention, anti-trust legislation, patent and copyright law, photography, inheritance, dental technology, music appreciation, cinema, international business, Tuskegee Institute, African-American education, school dropouts, single parenting, optics, England, Dominican Republic, Powell's trip through the Grand Canyon, foundations, women's education, early women's employment, endowments, the Underground Railroad, hard work, scientific research and journals, chemistry, advertising, and universities.

Important People Related to the Topic

Edward Bausch: Son of John Jacob Bausch and inventor of many of the products produced by his father's company. These products were purchased by Eastman and other clients. Edward became a close friend of George and was a common collaborator in both Eastman's philanthropic efforts and his efforts to reform local Rochester politics.

John Jacob Bausch and Henry Lomb: Partners in the Bausch and Lomb Optical Company. Both men were recent immigrants from Germany when they formed the company that would supply lenses and other parts for Kodak cameras from 1883 until 1912.

Charles Bennett: British researcher whose development of a method of dry plate photography was the catalyst for George Eastman's early success.

Thomas Edison: Fellow inventor and collaborator in the development of motion pictures.

Henry Alvah Strong: One of Eastman's mother's former boarders. Strong was later the first of Eastman's partners. He provided the financing to start the first Eastman Company and became one of George Eastman's closest friends and advisors.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Eastman Dental Institute, named after George Eastman, is dedicated to "the advancement of orofacial health care sciences, so as to benefit society by research, scholarship, and education of the highest international standard." Information about the Institute's educational opportunities, research, patient care, and various departments can be found at http://www.eastman.ucl.ac.uk.

The Eastman Rochester Philharmonic was begun in 1922 by George Eastman. Its mission is "to perform and present a broad range of quality music; attract, entertain and educate audiences with superior musical performances; maintain and build the Orchestra's national reputation; and enhance the reputation of the Rochester community as a place in which to live, work, play, visit and learn." Visit the Web site at http://www.rpo.org for information on the Philharmonic's current season, its musicians, community outreach programs, and its history.

Eastman School of Music, located at the University of Rochester, was founded by George Eastman with philosophy that professional musicians have an opportunity to receive an education in a rich environment. Information about its programs, history, institutes, departments, faculty, community programs and more can be found at http://www.rochester.edu/eastman/. Naturally, the University of Rochester, itself, was also a recipient of generous donations from Eastman during his lifetime.

Hampton Institute (now called Hampton University) was established in 1868 to provide African Americans with an education, leadership and job skills to help prepare them to lead and teach others during the Reconstruction. The school, located in Virginia, offered an education to Native Americans at a time when they were considered of lower status than blacks. In 1984 it formally took on the structure of a university (http://www.hamptonu.edu).

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a world-renowned research and technology institution. Its mission is "to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century" (http://web.mit.edu).

Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) is most well-known for the leadership of its founder, Booker T. Washington, and the accomplishments of an alumni, George Washington Carver. During World War II, the Tuskegee campus was used as a training ground for black pilots because it had an excellent aeronautics engineering program. The pilots became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Learn more about the university's programs and history at https://www.tuskegee.edu/.

Related Web Sites

American Experience's "The Wizard of Photography" is featured on the Public Broadcasting Service Web site. Information on the television program's episode focusing on George Eastman includes a timeline, a teacher's companion guide, and coverage of people and events related to his life. Find these resources at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eastman/.

The Web site of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film is found at http://www.eastmanhouse.org/. A nonprofit museum, located on what "was the urban estate of George Eastman (1854-1932), founder of Eastman Kodak Company. Opened in 1949, the Museum includes Mr. Eastman's restored house and gardens, an archives building and research center, galleries, two theaters, and an education center. The Museum displays the art, technology, and impact of photography and motion pictures over 150 years, and interprets the life of Mr. Eastman, an influential industrialist and philanthropist." The Web site provides a section "About George Eastman."

The Kodak Company Web site, at https://www.kodak.com/eknec/PageQuerier.jhtml?pq-path=2/6868&pq-locale=en_US&_requestid=20284, contains a full range of information about the company. In the "History of Kodak" section, along with histories of the company, there is a short biography of George Eastman.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Brayer, Elizabeth. George Eastman: A Biography. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0801852633.

Briggs, Asa. A Dictionary of Twentieth Century Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Capital Research Center. George Eastman: America's Unknown Giant of Philanthropy. [cited 6 November 2002]. Currently unavailable from http://www.capitalresearch.org/publications/alternatives/1997/april.htm [no longer available].

DeVinney, James A. In My Case Music. Produced and directed by James A. DeVinney. 57 min. Green Light Productions, 2000. Videocassette.

Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography. Vol. 5. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kodak. History of Kodak: George Eastman... the Man. [updated 14 September 2001; cited 19 September 2002]. Available from

Kodak. History of Kodak: Introduction. [updated 14 September 2001; cited 19 September 2002]. Available from https://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/kodakHistory/.

Magnusson, Magnus and Rosemary Goring. Cambridge Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1990.

The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 5. New York: McGraw Hill, 1973.

Traub, Carol G. Profiles: Philanthropists and Their Legacies. Minneapolis: The Oliver Press, 1997. ISBN: 1881508420.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.