Anthony Joseph Drexel was a notable Philadelphian and the namesake of the city’s second largest institution of higher learning — Drexel University. But he also played an enormous role in the cultural, commercial, and geographical evolution of America on the whole. Indeed, few bankers can be said to have contributed more directly to the precarious survival of our nation following the Civil War than Mr. Drexel. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Drexel’s contributions outside of the educational sphere helped to formulate and reinforce the very foundations of the American economy.
Banking on the Future
Born in the City of Brotherly Love in 1826, Drexel began his career as an investment banker at an age when most of us couldn’t balance a checkbook. At thirteen, he went to work at his father’s banking house. By his twenty-first birthday, he had become a full member of the Drexel & Company firm. With his father’s passing in 1863, Anthony took over full control of the firm and, eight years later, partnered with a young man named John Pierpont Morgan. Joining their firms together, they formed Drexel, Morgan & Co.
Drexel, Morgan & Co. proved to be among the most important privately held firms in U.S. history. Creating a national capital market for industrial companies, the firm took the leading role in financing the expansion of America’s railroads, an investment that opened the continent to a whole new era of interstate commerce, travel, and development. After contributing so prodigiously to America’s growth, Drexel also played a direct role in its continued survival. In 1877, Drexel Morgan stepped into a lurch created by a reluctant Congress and underwrote pay for the U.S. Army. During the Panic of 1893, Drexel Morgan also floated a loan that bailed the U.S. government out of insolvency.
In the midst of these heady accomplishments, Anthony also saw his way to founding the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, whose original mission was to provide coeducational opportunities in the “practical arts and sciences.” It should also bear noting that Drexel’s passion for art contributed to his 1872 founding of The Fairmount Park Art Association (today the Association for Public Art). This was the very first “private, nonprofit public art organization dedicated to integrating public art and urban planning.”
Saint in the City
If all that wasn’t enough, Anthony Drexel also fathered a saint. For real. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) was born to Anthony’s brother Francis but when her mother died a mere five weeks after childbirth, Katharine’s aunt and uncle assumed her care. Katharine was exceedingly wealthy, but eschewed her inheritance (and several marriage proposals) to enter the convent in 1889. She donated $7 million to the Catholic Church and took up the cause of outreach for Native and African Americans. For her life in service of those in need, Katharine was eventually canonized.
Drexel passed away in the summer of 1893, leaving behind the University that bears his name. Two years thereafter, the firm that bore his name would transform into one of the most recognized firms in American corporate history. His former partner rechristened the group J.P. Morgan & Co.
Even with Drexel now departed, the firm he began continued to transform the fabric of American government and commerce, financing the formation of the United States Steel Company (America’s first billion dollar company), and rescuing the New York Stock Exchange during the panic of 1907.
Silver Screen Dean
And if you still aren’t convinced of the importance of Drexel’s accomplishments, perhaps Walt Disney can compel you otherwise. The Happiest Millionaire, a musical biopic about the legendary businessmen and philanthropist, was the final live action film to benefit from Disney’s direct involvement. Indeed, Disney died just before its 1967 release.
In 1970, following several name changes, Drexel College achieved university status. Today, the school is home to 26,000 students. In a city rich with colleges and university, only Temple University boasts more students.
- To join the Drexel University community, click here.
- Check out Drexel’s Disney biopic for a pleasantly fictionalized account of the man’s life.
Learn more about the lesser-known heroes and legends
behind many of our most-loved educational institutions!