29 Mar 2011
Harvard Business School Receives Papers of Benefactor George Fisher Baker
Banker's 1924 donation funded construction of school's campus
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George Fisher Baker Photo: Baker Library Historical Collections

BOSTON—Harvard Business School (HBS) recently received a significant collection of papers, photographs, and memorabilia belonging to George Fisher Baker (1840-1931) and his family. Baker was the prominent financier and philanthropist whose $5 million donation to Harvard University in 1924 (with an additional $1 million gift a year later) funded the construction of the School's campus in Boston. Designed by the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, the residential campus officially opened in June 1927, with Mr. Baker present at the age of 87. Appropriately, its iconic centerpiece is the Baker Library (now Baker Library | Bloomberg Center), where the collection will be permanently housed. The donation was made by members of the Baker family.

"George Fisher Baker was one of the most accomplished figures in the history of American business," said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria. "A role model for the ages, he was the epitome of leadership, while creating organizations of tremendous value for the American economy in the early 20th century. As beneficiaries of the extraordinary gifts that transformed the School, all of us with any connection to HBS are forever grateful to George Fisher Baker and his family."

"We are delighted and honored to receive this collection," said Laura Linard, Director of Baker Library Collections. "The task before us now is to catalogue the hundreds of items we have received. Once we have completed that, we look forward to opening the collection for research and teaching. Our goal is to give both the Harvard community and the public an understanding of Mr. Baker's remarkable life and accomplishments."

A descendant of a seventeenth-century settler in Dorchester, Mass., Baker was born in Troy, New York, where his father was a town clerk and state legislator. After attending several private secondary schools, in 1856 he took a job in the Banking Department of the State of New York. Seven years later, at the age of 23, he invested $3,000 to become an original shareholder in the First National Bank of New York (now Citibank).

Starting out as assistant cashier, Baker became the bank's president in 1877 and was its largest shareholder. As one of the country's leading bankers and financiers, he bought and revitalized several failing railroads; had great success as well in the utilities, steel, and rubber industries; and served on the boards of more than 40 corporations.

Baker's wide-ranging philanthropic activities included support for the construction of Dartmouth College's Baker Library, dormitories and a chemical laboratory at Cornell University, and the purchase of land and the construction of athletic facilities at Columbia University. He also gave generously to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Red Cross.

Known for his business prowess and aversion to publicity, Baker preferred to let his actions speak for themselves. In 1924, a cover story in TIME magazine tried to answer the question, "Who is George F. Baker?" A 1934 Newsweek article described him as "one of the most imposing figures in banking history."

Given Baker's combination of accomplishments and character, in 1924 he was approached by Harvard University for a donation to support the creation of a dedicated campus for Harvard Business School, which, though founded in 1908, for almost the first two decades of its existence used facilities in the Harvard Yard. Representing the University, Episcopal Bishop William Lawrence traveled to New York City to ask Baker for a gift of $1 million. After a number of meetings, Baker said that he was not interested in giving a $1 million donation. Rather, he continued, "If by giving five million dollars I could have the privilege of building the whole School, I should like to do it." In 1927, Baker offered an additional $1 million gift to ensure "a successful future" for Harvard Business School, the first institution in the world to offer the MBA degree.