John Knowles served as President of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and was highly regarded for his enthusiasm, intellect, and good humor. The promise of his tenure was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 52. Yet in his seven years as RF president, he prepared the Foundation for an increasingly interconnected world.
Knowles was born in Chicago in 1926. He studied at Harvard University and later at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He graduated in 1951 and was offered an internship, and later a residency, at Massachusetts General Hospital.
With the exception of two brief interludes as an officer at the Naval Hospital in Virginia in 1953, and as a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Public Health Service in 1956, he remained at Massachusetts General Hospital. He rose quickly through the staff ranks and was named General Director of the institution in 1962 at age 35. While at Massachusetts General, he also taught at Harvard Medical School.
Although his medical career was distinguished, it was also at times controversial. Knowles was a staunch supporter of preventative medicine and universal medical coverage and a vocal critic of unnecessary medical procedures and the high salaries earned by some medical doctors. His career at Massachusetts General was characterized by his support for increased accessibility to medical care, public health education, and modernization. In 1969 he was nominated by President Richard Nixon for the position of Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs. His nomination was met with dissent by some members of the established medical community, and pressure from the American Medical Association eventually derailed his nomination.
Knowles’ failed nomination left the door open for the RF Board to offer him the presidency of the Foundation in 1972. He was just 48 years old and the first medical doctor to be named as the head of the organization. From the start it was clear that his intellectual curiosity extended far beyond medicine. He possessed long-standing interests in social and economic issues, and he regarded these issues as intrinsically linked to the health care provision,agricultural productivity, population growth, and global security. One of his first projects was conducting a program review intended to reformulate the Foundation’s goals to further explore these issues.
Knowles was also a member of a number of important organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations.
The life of John Knowles was cut short in 1979 by pancreatic cancer. He returned to Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment, but he never recovered from this illness. The papers of John Knowles can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).