I’ve been writing for magazines, newspapers and nonprofits for 30 years. But this blog, like my website, is brand new. Here, I will be free to write whatever I want about animal welfare, health care, disability rights and social justice.

Eastman Kodak Co. Founder Considered Health Care a Human Right (at least when it came to teeth)

“I don’t believe in men waiting until they are ready to die before using any of their money for helpful purposes.”~ George Eastman

The New York Times recently broke the story that the CEOs of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase were forming a company to lower health care costs for their employees. Details were scant but the company “will be independent and “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.”

“The ballooning costs of (health care) act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” colorfully stated Warren Buffett, CEO of Hathaway. “Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.”

This ambitious partnership got me thinking about Rochester’s very own George Eastman, who believed in health care for all—especially affordable dental care. A dentist was not in the family budget for Maria Kilbourn and her three children, Ellen Maria, Katie and George. As a result, Eastman and his mother developed terrible teeth. In the late 1800’s, Eastman memorably witnessed Kilbourn having 15 teeth extracted.

This deprivation led the film innovator to become a crusader for preventive dental for the poor. In 1915, he built the Rochester Dental Dispensary, now known as the Eastman Institute for Oral Health. He donated millions to the founding of the University of Rochester Medical School, which opened in 1921. He spread his considerable largesse across the sea, opening Eastman Dental Clinics in London, Rome, Brussels, Stockholm and Paris between 1929 and 1937. Over his lifetime, Eastman, who never married, anonymously donated about $100 million, worth $1.3 billion today, to various organizations.

If Eastman were a successful entrepreneur today, his employees would likely enjoy generous health benefits. In the early 20th century, he established a “wage dividend”—Kodak employees received extra compensation in proportion to the yearly dividend on the company stock. In 1919, Eastman gave one-third of his own holdings of Kodak stock–then worth $10 million–to his employees. He later implemented paid sick leave, life insurance, disability coverage, a retirement annuity and paid college tuition at his company.

Given today’s health care and education costs, some of those benefits may be beyond the reach of even the wealthiest, most benevolent 21st century CEOs. But Eastman’s overriding belief that “the prosperity of an organization was largely due the workers’ goodwill and loyalty”—still makes sense today.

Sources: The New York Times, Eastman Kodak Co., the George Eastman Papers, University of Rochester River Campus Library and Momentum (Eastman Dental Center)