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Rockefeller Foundation (RF) programming has consistently focused on public health. Initiatives designed to build the infrastructure of public health, eradicate disease and increase access to health care have formed the core of 100 years of RF programming. Even before the incorporation of the RF in 1913, several Rockefeller philanthropies paid particular attention to public health and medical research.

Teaching by lecture and demonstration, Marengo County (Alabama)

Teaching by lecture and demonstration, Marengo County (Alabama)

Early Giving

John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s interest in health was in large part influenced by Frederick T. Gates, who was Rockefeller’s philanthropic advisor. Gates had a personal interest in medical research, and he believed strongly that it could be of universal benefit. In 1901, Gates persuaded Rockefeller to fund the creation of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research (RIMR) to research the causes, prevention and cures of disease.  While financial support for the RIMR was initially disbursed in small increments, by 1928 the organization had received $65 million in Rockefeller funding.[1]


One of the first programs initiated by the newly incorporated RF was the International Health Division (IHD), created in 1913. The IHD remained the most important organization devoted to public health before the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948. In its 38 years of operation, the IHD was involved in 80 countries, where its field officers targeted specific diseases while also trying to create local public health structures.

Changes in leadership at the IHD led to changes in mandate. Priorities shifted from the eradication of hookworm to the eradication and control of more serious diseases, like malaria and yellow fever. Medical education was also a growing priority.

Under the IHD’s first director, Wickliffe Rose, the organization was committed to disease eradication and control, but efforts were also directed toward the ultimate goal of educating local populations and creating sustainable public health networks that could operate independently and efficiently after the RF left a region.

Rose’s successors built upon his ideas while incorporating other strategies to combat disease. Establishing and strengthening public health institutions certainly always played a role in IHD programs, but under the tenure of Frederick Russell lab research became a priority. This change was not without conflict - it created tensions between IHD scientists working in labs and the field officers who remained abroad, delivering medical care to local populations.

After World War II, the role of the IHD became harder to define. The WHO became the dominant organization in the field of public health. The IHD briefly toyed with the idea of advocacy of universal healthcare and social medicine, but these goals were abandoned under the weight of internal debate.[2]

A reorganization of the RF in the postwar period also impacted health programs. RF trustees determined that in the aftermath of war there existed a greater need to develop the social sciences. Ultimately, the IHD ceased to exist as a separate entity in 1951. The organization became part of the Division of Medical Education and Public Health, which placed greater emphasis on medical education.

Public Health Today

In the 21stcentury public health programming has once again become a RF priority. Through its initiatives in Health Equity and Transforming Health Systems, the RF contributes significantly towards long-term goals of increasing global access to health care though e-health technology, and in working across national borders to monitor the transmission of disease through its support of programs in disease surveillance. The RF also continues to remain focused on the most important diseases of the day, contributing to programs aimed at controlling HIV/AIDS in Africa and supporting research in the development of vaccines for HIV/AIDS and various childhood diseases.

[1] E. Richard Brown, Rockefeller Medicine Men (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) 105.
[2] John Farley, To Cast Out Disease (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 274.