John D. Lankenau was perhaps the greatest Lutheran layman in nineteenth-century America. Born in Germany, he immigrated to America in 1836 and became a prosperous Philadelphia businessman. In 1865, Lankenau sold his firm and retired from business. From 1869 until his death, he was president of Philadelphia’s German Hospital. After his wife, Mary Johanna Drexel, and his two children died between 1873 and 1882, charitable work became, he said, “a necessity.” At his own expense, he greatly enlarged German Hospital, and in 1884 brought seven deaconesses from Germany to take charge there.
He built the Mary J. Drexel Home and Philadelphia Motherhouse of Deaconesses, which housed a home for the aged and a children’s hospital as well as deaconesses. At his death, most of his 1.6 million dollar estate was divided between the hospital and the deaconesses. German Hospital was renamed Lankenau Hospital in 1917 after a man who truly lived out his favorite saying, “A life spent for others is a life not spent in vain.”