The opportunities for the Foundation’s cooperation in China lie in many directions but I urgently insist that a considerable part of any future aid which we may give be devoted towards activities the benefits of which will be felt by the rural population."
Selskar M. Gunn, China and the Rockefeller Foundation, 23 January 1934
Born in London, England, in 1883, Selskar Gunn led a distinguished career with the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) that involved him in some of the most important issues of his day.
Gunn arrived in the U.S. in 1900 to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He graduated with a B.S. in 1905, became an American citizen in 1906 and subsequently held a number of positions in the field of public health before becoming an officer of the RF.
Gunn’s twenty-five year career with the RF included a number of important appointments. In 1917 he was sent to France to act as Associate Director of the Commission for Prevention of Tuberculosis in France. He took a lead role in the public education portion of the program and in training French medical staff. He remained in this position until 1920, when he headed to Czechoslovakia to serve as an advisor to that nation’s Public Health Administration. In 1922 the RF reassigned Gunn to the Paris office of the RF to assume the directorship of divisional operations for all of Europe. Gunn remained a member of the International Health Division (IHD) until 1927.
In that year Gunn was jointly appointed Vice President of European Operations and Assistant Director of Social Science Programs in Europe. His success in both these positions resulted in his election to Vice President of the RF in 1932.
Gunn’s career with the RF was transformed after a trip to China in 1931. In China he saw an opportunity for the RF to apply both its money and its workforce to a major, multidisciplinary project involving agriculture, education and health care, and he persistently lobbied the organization to achieve this goal.
Gunn’s research in China on subsequent trips resulted in China and the Rockefeller Foundation, a 1934 report to RF trustees that would go on to form the basis of RF grants to The China Program officially launched in 1935. As developed by Gunn, the China Program paired RF officers with Chinese institutions in order to tackle the problems of China’s rural poor. Foundation funding focused specifically on training native talent to develop a corps of professionals to focus on problems in sanitation, agriculture and medicine. Unfortunately, the China Program came to an end by the late 1930s after the Japanese invasion.
By 1938 Gunn had returned to RF’s Paris office to resume work in Europe, but the Nazi invasion of France forced him to leave for New York in 1940. He died in 1944 after a long- term illness.
More information on the career of Selskar Gunn can be found in RF Annual Reports from 1917 to 1942. His officer's diaries are digitized and can be accessed through the Rockefeller Archive Center's online collections.