In the first decades of the twentieth century, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) helped establish the field of oceanography in the United States, both through founding and strengthening oceanographic institutions and through extensive support for research.
Modern U.S. scientific interest in the oceans started in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as many universities and independent institutions established seaside biology laboratories along the nation's coasts. These laboratories were venues for scientists to study the morphology of aquatic life and conduct comparative studies in plant and animal physiology. Some of these laboratories, such as the Naples Zoological Station (NZS) in Naples, Italy and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, served as important summer destinations for biologists, gathering scientists from many universities to work together.
RF involvement with oceanography dated from its first decade of philanthropic work. In 1922 it made a major grant of $500,000 to the MBL for a new building and an endowment. Additional funding for the MBL’s $1,000,000 plan came from the Carnegie Corporation and from a personal donation by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (JDR Jr.). The RF similarly aided the NZS as the station struggled to re-establish itself after World War I, providing a multiyear funding commitment beginning in 1924.
While closely related to the RF's support for oceanographic institutions, its research support in the field had a slightly different origin. The RF’s interest in modern oceanographic research can be traced through the activities of the International Education Board (IEB) and the General Education Board (GEB), two foundations whose programs were ultimately folded into the RF. Wickliffe Rose, who headed both institutions, had a particular interest in the development of ocean science. Since the study of ocean currents, the sea floor, and the natural resources of the sea necessitated international cooperation, oceanography was a natural fit for the IEB. In addition, the connections between marine science and fisheries were compatible with both Boards’ interest in areas of science that had environmental and economic implications (such as agriculture and forestry).
In 1925 Rose made personal visits to the MBL, the Mount Desert Island station in Maine, and to the biological station in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. He also provided support to Frank R. Lillie, a professor at the University of Chicago and head of the MBL, to conduct a survey of European biological stations. During this period, the IEB had already provided grants to individual investigators of marine biology and fish culture. Rose was in close contact with Lillie again two years later, after Lillie was appointed to head a new National Academy of Sciences Committee on Oceanography, which was comprised of the leading scientists in marine biology.
With Rose’s support, the GEB provided $75,000 for the committee’s work; a report of its findings was published in 1929. Accompanying the report were two key works on oceanography by Henry Bigelow, who soon became director of the new Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and T. Wayland Vaughn, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. These scientists’ careers and the influential approach that they developed would continue to intersect with the RF's work in the field in future years.
Over the next several years, the RF would continue its oceanographic support with generous grants to the University of Washington Oceanographic Laboratories, the Bermuda Biological Station, the MBL, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Grants supported new facilities, endowments, laboratory equipment, and marine vessels. Over many years, the RF provided grants for investigations in specific laboratories, including Claude ZoBell’s research on algae and Adriano Buzzati-Traverso’s work on the genetics of marine life.
Following its early burst of support in the 1930s, the RF discontinued programs of institution-building in oceanography and concentrated its future funding on research. Oceanography fit particularly well into Warren Weaver's emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches to the biological sciences. Although never a large area of research funding, oceanography remained a key interest of the Foundation, and grants for research at the institutes the RF had long funded, like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, continued into the early 1970s.