Henry Shaw broke fertile ground for a botanical garden as well as philanthropy

Henry Shaw founded the Missouri Botanical Garden — the subject of this month’s Uniquely St. Louis — in 1859, a gesture that preceded the age of American philanthropy.

Shaw had made a fortune in St. Louis, first by selling hardware and cutlery and then expanding to include investments in agricultural commodities, mining, real estate and furs. He was able to retire at the age of 39.

Originally from England, he resolved to return something to his adopted city, and 40 years after he arrived in St. Louis, he founded a botanical garden for the city’s residents.

The design was influenced by the great gardens and estates of Europe. Shaw wanted to focus on its displays and also on the richness of its architectural heritage and the importance of its botanical research.

It was unusual at the time for such an expression. Land was seen for its agricultural value, and the 79 acres he owned was a choice piece of property. He described the land as, “uncultivated, without trees or fences, but covered with tall luxuriant grass, undulated by the gentle breeze of spring.”

While his gesture was unusual for the mid-19th century, its foundation is similar to what philanthropists follow today. Shaw loved the land and saw its potential as something others would appreciate as well. But he didn’t stop there. Through his acts of philanthropy, Shaw provided substantial support to develop many other St. Louis institutions including Tower Grove Park, the Missouri Historical Society and the St. Louis Mercantile Library.

A CEO I once interviewed — well-known for acts of philanthropy — described his thoughts on the subject of giving:

“There might be something that is really important to a founder of a company,” he says. “You learn from other leaders or your own sense of responsibility that you should give something back to the community. When you start out, you often don’t have enough money to share with others. As you succeed in life and you accumulate assets, it makes you feel good to give some of it back.

“When I was a student, I studied existentialism — Kierkegaard and Sartre wrote about it. It teaches that the purpose in life is to make the world a better place. If you think in those terms, you ask, how do you accomplish that? What can you do with your money and your means to make the future better for human beings?

“Doctors contribute and wealthy people contribute. There are all sorts of ways you can make your town and your country better. I think you get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing that when you die you are not known for just clipping coupons the rest of your life after retirement — you’ve actually done some things that are meaningful and lasting for the community. It doesn’t hurt to give. It’s a good feeling.”

What can you do to make the world a better place? Perhaps it is time to give it some thought and take action.