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John D. Rockefeller

John Davison Rockefeller (JDR) earned enormous wealth as the founder of the Standard Oil Company. Motivated by religious conviction and a sense of personal responsibility, JDR used his fortune to establish several philanthropic institutions and donated an estimated $540 million to charitable causes.

JDR was born the second of six children in 1839. Although the family income was modest, JDR’s mother emphasized the importance of charity as part of their Baptist faith. JDR’s personal ledgers demonstrate the impact of this lesson; they track his charitable donations from 1855, when he worked as a bookkeeper in Cleveland, long before he began to accrue his enormous wealth.

In 1859 JDR used his savings to create a commission business with partner Maurice B. Clark. That same year the first oil well was drilled in western Pennsylvania, paving the way for Cleveland to become a center of the oil refining industry. Inspired by this development, Rockefeller and Clark recruited Samuel Andrews in 1863 to establish the oil refinery, Andrews, Clark & Co. Later disagreements over management resulted in JDR buying out his business partners.

As JDR’s business career was beginning to develop, so was his personal life. In 1864 JDR married Laura C. Spelman. Together, the couple had five children – Bessie (1866-1906), Alice (1869-1870), Alta (1871-1962), Edith (1872-1932) and John D., Jr (1874-1960).

In 1870 JDR enlisted new business partners to form the Standard Oil Company. By 1872 the company had bought out almost every refinery in Cleveland and two in New York. Ten years later all of the company’s properties, now scattered throughout the country, were merged under the Standard Oil Trust, which included forty-two owners.

By the 1890s Standard Oil controlled an estimated three quarters of the U.S. petroleum industry. During this same period, rising public concern about business monopolies led the U.S. Congress to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. This legislation, which forbids business practices that restrain trade, was eventually used in 1911 to dissolve Standard Oil into many separate firms once the company was found to be in violation of the Act. 

Despite its legal troubles, Standard Oil continued to make enormous profits. While JDR had always contributed to charity, his growing fortune convinced him that he needed a more calculated and far-reaching approach to his giving. His first large-scale philanthropic endeavor took place in 1889 when Frederick T. Gates asked for his help in establishing a great Baptist university in the Midwest. JDR’s contributions helped to establish the University of Chicago.

Impressed with Gates’ philanthropic efforts, the two men formed a friendship, and JDR eventually asked Gates to work as his philanthropic advisor. In 1896 JDR retired from the active leadership of Standard Oil and devoted himself more entirely to philanthropy. Over the next decade, he and Gates created projects intended to reach and solve the underlying causes of social and medical problems. In 1901 The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was founded, followed by the General Education Board (GEB) in 1902 and the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission (RSC) in 1909.

Seeking a more comprehensive approach to philanthropy, JDR created The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in 1913 with an original endowment of $100 million. The new organization was charged with addressing a variety of issues and expanding philanthropic work to a global scale. The Foundation’s initiatives included programs in international health and agriculture, areas in which The Foundation continues to work today.

JDR died in 1937 at the age of 97. The papers of JDR can be accessed by researchers at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).