Rockefeller Foundation

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ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION was established on 14 May 1913 "to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world." In 2000 the foundation was the nation's thirteenth largest, with assets of $3.8 billion and annual giving of around $150 million. Over its history it has paid out more than $2 billion and has assisted nearly 13,000 fellows.

The foundation is the product of a long history of giving by Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller (1839– 1937), who in the course of his life donated $540 million to philanthropic purposes, of which $182 million capitalized the foundation. His first major project was supporting the University of Chicago, to which he eventually gave $35 million. In 1901 he founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University), and the following year established the General Education Board (GEB), which targeted rural schools in the South and among African Americans. The GEB eventually paid out $325 million before dissolving in 1965. In 1909, he launched a public-health program in the South called the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease, and it was the success of this program that led him to establish the Rockefeller Foundation.

Once the foundation was organized, John D. Rockefeller delegated philanthropic responsibilities to its trustees, never attending a board meeting. His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960), made philanthropic work his primary career, heading the foundation's board from its first meeting until 1940 and eventually donating over $530 million of his own resources to various causes.

For fifteen years the foundation devoted itself primarily to public health and medical science. Its field staff extended campaigns against hookworm into many countries and undertook similar measures against other communicable diseases, particularly malaria and yellow fever. The joint development of a yellow fever vaccine by the foundation's field staff and laboratory investigators in 1937 culminated two decades of worldwide health activities.

The foundation was a major supporter of Abraham Flexner's plan for a "full-time" system of medical education, which dramatically changed medicine by a strategic emphasis upon basic research. It applied this model worldwide, first in China with the founding of Peking Union Medical College in 1917. In the 1920s, the foundation funded numerous medical schools and schools of public health in Europe, Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, with similar emphasis upon basic research. In 1932 the natural science division came under the direction of Warren Weaver, who focused funding on "vital processes," leading to the development of new disciplines, among them molecular biology.

Another early interest was in "social hygiene," that is, issues of maternal health, sex education, and birth control. In the 1930s it funded research in reproductive endocrinology, and after World War II it would be one of the first to support Albert Kinsey's research in sexual behavior. It also supported the Population Council, contraceptive development, and especially population control.

The social sciences began receiving foundation attention in the 1920s through a partnership with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, established in honor of Rockefeller's wife. Under the direction of Beardsley Ruml, it funded the development of university research departments, especially in international relations, sociology, economics, and public administration, and also helped create the Social Science Research Council, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the London School of Economics. The foundation's humanities division, in partnership with the GEB, established the American Council of Learned Societies.

In the late 1930s, the foundation assisted more than three hundred scholars and scientists in escaping from fascism in Europe, and helped many to gain positions in American universities. After World War II it increasingly shifted resources to the overwhelming problems of the developing world. It helped begin the first "area studies" program in 1946 and, in partnership with other large foundations, expanded such programs to numerous research universities.

Its work in agriculture began in Mexico in the 1940s, where the foundation supported research into increased production of basic food crops, a worldwide program that led to the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Rockefeller Foundation field scientist Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this work, making him one of more than 170 Nobel Prize winners who had been assisted by the foundation.

The Rockefeller Foundation has frequently worked in partnership with other foundations and agencies, in such fields as environmental affairs, race issues, conflict resolution, and the arts. In 2000 it reorganized to concentrate more on poverty and involving the poor in the grant-making process, with four divisions focused on culture, working communities, food security, and health equity.


Fosdick, Raymond B. The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation. New York: Harper, 1952. Reprint, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1989.

Harr, John, and Peter Johnson. The Rockefeller Century. New York: Scribners, 1988.

———. The Rockefeller Conscience: An American Family in Public and in Private. New York: Scribners, 1991.

Fred W.Beuttler

See alsoPhilanthropy .

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