"Ruml has a creative ignorance which prevents him from seeing the No Thoroughfare, Keep Off the Grass, Don't Trespass, and Dead End Street signs in the world of ideas."
New Yorker profile of Beardsley Ruml, February 10, 1945
Beardsley Ruml was a psychologist, businessman, public policy advisor, and all-around "idea man" who directed the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM) from 1922 to 1929. His work as Director of the LSRM helped professionalize and legitimize the social scientific disciplines, leading University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins to call him "the founder of social sciences in America." Ruml had a remarkable propensity for devising creative solutions to social and economic problems. The key to his success, he claimed, was to dedicate at least an hour a day to simply sitting in a chair and thinking.
Ruml was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 5, 1894. He earned his B.S. from Dartmouth College in 1915, and his Ph.D. in psychology (with a specialization in mental testing) from the University of Chicago in 1917. During World War I he created occupational tests for military personnel for the War Department's Committee on Classification of Personnel in the Army.
In 1920, Ruml was introduced to the world of philanthropy when he became assistant to Carnegie Corporation President Dr. James Rowland Angell. When Angell left Carnegie to become president of Yale University, he recommended Ruml to Raymond B. Fosdick, who was an advisor to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (JDR Jr.), as well as a Rockefeller Foundation (RF) board member and future RF president. JDR Jr. was looking for someone to survey potential philanthropic contributions the New York Public Library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At Fosdick's recommendation, Ruml was given the job, and the quality of his work did not go unnoticed. When Fosdick and JDR Jr. began looking for someone to reorganize the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in 1921, Ruml was their top choice.
The LSRM, created in 1918 by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in memory of his late wife, lacked a clear philanthropic vision. Ruml assumed the director's role in 1922, and successfully transformed the Memorial. At his urging, the LSRM moved away from more traditional social welfare and emergency relief causes and instead channeled funds into the social sciences. Ruml pushed the Memorial to take a more scientific, research-oriented approach, with a focus on grantmaking that would strengthen social science research at universities while also encouraging practical applications of that research toward the improvement of social problems. He also played a key role in establishing the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in 1923, which worked to foster interdisciplinary collaboration among the social scientific disciplines. Ruml remained director of the LSRM until 1929, when the Memorial was incorporated into the Rockefeller Foundation. The social science work of the LSRM was taken over by the RF's new Division of Social Sciences, and LSRM research associate Sydnor Walker became the Division's Assistant Director. The groundwork laid by Ruml and his staff continued to influence the Foundation's social sciences program long after the LSRM itself ceased to exist.
Ruml's reputation as an "idea man" earned him several prominent academic, business, and advisory roles. Shortly after leaving the LSRM, Ruml became Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Education at the University of Chicago. In 1934 he left Chicago to become Treasurer of R.H. Macy and Company; he held that position from 1934 to 1945, and served as Chairman of the Board from 1945 to 1951. Ruml was also appointed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's planning board in 1935, and became a director of the Federal Reserve of New York in 1937. He served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve board from 1941 to 1946. Today, Ruml is best known for coming up with the idea for the American pay-as-you-go income tax scheme; Congress passed a version of the plan in 1943.
Beardsley Ruml died on April 19, 1960 in Danbury, Connecticut. The records of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center.