Raymond B. Fosdick was a man with philanthropic interests and great administrative talents who played an instrumental role in directing the Rockefeller Foundation (RF).
Fosdick was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1883. He pursued his post-secondary education at Princeton University, receiving his B.A. in 1905 and his M.A. in 1906. His decision to study at Princeton helped to set the trajectory of his career. While there, he met and befriended Woodrow Wilson, who was then president of the University. Wilson’s internationalist philosophy and interest in social problems had a profound effect in shaping Fosdick’s worldview and, later, his term of leadership at the RF.
While still a student, Fosdick visited New York City’s Lower East Side. The living conditions of many of the city’s immigrant families appalled him, and after graduating from Princeton, he took a position at the Henry Street Settlement, which provided social services to poor families in that neighborhood. Fosdick continued to work there while also pursuing a law degree, which he received from New York Law School in 1908.
Upon completing law school, Fosdick took a position as investigator for the City of New York. It was here, while investigating white slavery, that he met John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (JDR Jr.), who was at that time working with a special grand jury tasked with investigating the same issue.
In 1913 Fosdick was hired by JDR Jr. to head up a study for the newly created Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH). The Bureau was created following JDR Jr.’s work as a member of the grand jury, and it was tasked with the study and prevention of a number of social ills related to urban poverty, including prostitution, venereal disease, and crime. He was hired to conduct a study focusing on European law enforcement, which was published as European Police Systems in 1916, but a follow-up study on American police systems was halted because of World War I.
In 1917 Fosdick took leave from the BSH when he was commissioned by the Secretary of War to study military training for the United States Army and Navy. Fosdick then went on to serve as a special representative of the War Department in France and as a civilian aide to General John J. Pershing. At war’s end Fosdick formally resigned from the BSH upon being named Under-Secretary General to the League of Nations. While he firmly believed in the mandate of the League, he ultimately left the position in 1920 when the United States failed to ratify its membership in the organization.
In 1920 Fosdick returned to the BSH and finally completed his long-delayed study on American police systems. He continued his close association with JDR Jr., serving as both his attorney and advisor. This relationship ultimately led to Fosdick’s prominent role in the Rockefeller family’s philanthropies.
In 1921 Fosdick became a board member at the RF, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (RIMR), the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM), the China Medical Board (CMB) and the International Health Division (IHD). One year later he was appointed a member of the General Education Board (GEB), and in 1923 he became a member of the International Education Board (IEB). As a trustee of the RF, Fosdick played a key role in the Foundation’s reorganization in 1928, and in 1936 he was named president of both the RF and GEB.
As president of the RF, Fosdick, along with JDR Jr., shaped the direction of the organization between 1936 and 1948. In these years the organization contributed substantially to the research and control of malaria and yellow fever, as well as to the modernization of China and the development of the natural sciences. During this time the RF also developed its first programs in the humanities and social sciences, as well as a revolutionary program in agriculture in the hopes of expanding crop production worldwide.
Fosdick’s work in public service and philanthropy resulted in many awards during his lifetime. These included the Distinguished Service Medal for his war work, and the titles of Commander in the French Legion of Honor and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also a prolific writer, authoring fourteen books, including The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation.
Raymond B. Fosdick died at his home in Newtown, Connecticut, in 1972. He was 89 years old. His papers are held at Princeton University. His officer's diaries are digitized and can be accessed through the Rockefeller Archive Center's online collections.