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Finding a Footing

The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was chartered in New York State on May 14, 1913, and on May 22, the Trustees held their first meeting. During the next twenty years, the RF was constantly experimenting with new program areas and new methods of working. Although Frederick T. Gates had proposed the concept of “wholesale” as opposed to “retail” giving as early as 1901, his idea was only an inspiration, not a blueprint. Building a philanthropic enterprise that would run like a business corporation was almost unprecedented on this massive scale.

Bill S. 6888 - A bill to incorporate the Rockefeller Foundation, 1910

Bill S. 6888 - A bill to incorporate the Rockefeller Foundation, 1910

From the outset, the Foundation’s ambitions were huge. As Gates put it, “These funds should be so large that to become a trustee of one of them would make a man at once a public character.”[1] 

A handful of similar charitable trusts had been established before the Rockefeller Foundation, most notably the Russell Sage Foundation (1907) and the Carnegie Corporation (1911), but several things placed the Rockefeller Foundation in a class by itself. First was the sheer amount of money John D. Rockefeller transferred to the Foundation: $100 million in the first year plus another $82.8 million in 1919 (billions of dollars in today’s terms). By the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation had become the largest philanthropic enterprise in the world.

Flexibility also set the RF apart from other charitable trusts. Unlike the earlier Rockefeller philanthropies, its purpose was not specialized, but rather “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”[2] What that could mean was left to its trustees and officers to determine. Rockefeller, who never attended a single meeting of the RF Board, aimed to avoid too great an influence by the dead hand of a founder, recognizing that each generation would be the best judge of philanthropic needs and methods during its own time.

Responding to Crisis

The Foundation did settle into two main fields of endeavor in this early period: public health and medical education. But the road to these twin commitments was not entirely smooth. Especially in its first four years, it made gifts to such a wide range of institutions and causes that there seemed to be little unifying theme. And almost immediately, World War I pressed the Foundation into service as a relief organization. In total, the Foundation spent $22.5 million on war relief work, more than any other single entity, including the federal government.

War work was quite different from the rational, scientific approach to addressing the root causes of social ills that the RF had intended to undertake. It demanded immediate response and direct aid. From 1913 to 1917, the RF underwrote support for Belgian refugees, purchased and shipped food and supplies, and trained medical personnel to work at the front. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the RF dissolved its own War Relief Commission and from that point forward channeled its war relief funds through the Red Cross.

International Object Lessons

The Foundation’s war work, however, was not entirely divorced from its central interests. One of its first actions was to establish the International Health Commission (subsequently the International Health Division or IHD) in 1913, under the direction of Wickliffe Rose, who had successfully directed the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission (RSC). Rose now applied on an international scale his approach to eradicating hookworm domestically. And, after a world tour in 1915, he expanded the IHD’s mandate beyond hookworm to include malaria, tuberculosis, and yellow fever.

Just as the hookworm eradication campaign in the U.S. had served as a vehicle for creating a public health network, IHD work also served larger goals. To Rose, the byproducts of the work were even more important than the control of a particular disease. As he explained, “by showing that it is possible to clean up a limited area, an object lesson is given.”[3] The object lesson was intended not only to change individual behavior but to change the practices of entire governments.

The first dose of Thymol ever given on foreign soil by the International Health Commission, Guyana, 1913

The first dose of Thymol ever given on foreign soil by the International Health Commission, Guyana, 1913

In its first ten years, the RF became known more for its health work than for any other initiative. RF Secretary Edwin Embree described it as "the outstanding feature of the whole Foundation program to date.”[4] He credited its success to Rose’s rigidly defined approach, which yielded measurable results in decreasing sickness and death rates. The IHD established a simple, consistent methodology even as it mounted extensive and far-flung campaigns. Its fundamental techniques became those of the Foundation as a whole:

  1. To work with established government authorities
  2. To tackle problems that were solvable
  3. To use convincing demonstrations as a means of persuading governments and other institutions to take the helm in the long run

Building Institutions

The IHD’s public health campaign revealed related needs. Finding that public health work required specialized training that almost no one had, the RF began to create an institutional infrastructure for that training.  It established the nation’s first School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in 1918, and went on to establish other such schools throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America throughout the 1920s.

Like public health training, medical education was not very well developed in the U.S. when the RF began its work. Medical schools were mostly for-profit enterprises without academic grounding or research facilities. RF support emphasized full-time professorships within universities and encouraged training in both basic science and clinical subjects. Through the General Education Board (GEB), it supported most of the nation’s leading medical schools between 1913 and 1929, and helped to pioneer the modern, university-based research and teaching hospital. As its commitment to medical education solidified, the RF created the Division of Medical Education in 1919, headed by Richard Pearce, with the aim of aiding medical schools throughout the world.

A major endeavor in medical education was the establishment of the China Medical Board (CMB) in 1914. The Foundation’s selection of China as a good location for introducing Western medical practices reflected the lingering influences of Gates’ and Rockefeller’s ties to Baptist missionary endeavors. The CMB enterprise however, became massive in its own right.  After an intensive survey of existing institutions, the CMB decided to build a “Johns Hopkins for China,”[5] the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC). It opened in 1917, and received significant RF funding through 1928.

Peking Union Medical College, library and students

Peking Union Medical College, library and students

“International Trade in Men and Ideas”

Partly as response to the devastation of World War I, the RF saw itself as “tiding over a crisis in the medical sciences,”[6] for a continent whose institutional infrastructure had been decimated. The Foundation had established significant relationships in Europe during the war, especially through its large-scale campaign against tuberculosis in France. Now it extended those relationships to support individuals in the sciences. In 1923, it created the International Education Board (IEB), and moved Rose over from the IHD to direct this new entity which was dedicated to promoting education on an international scale. The main idea guiding the IEB was that scientific research, by its very nature, was an international concern. The connections needed to foster the development of scientific research had largely been broken by the war, and the IEB sought to repair them.

Rose developed a hands-on approach: visiting leading scientists, identifying the most inspiring and productive ones, and hiring them to teach the most promising young students (who would, in turn, be supported by RF funds). All of the individuals Rose identified were recommended through an extensive network of contacts that Rose constantly nurtured. Rose’s IEB fellowship program would later serve as the model for the Foundation’s support of the sciences in Europe throughout the 1930s, under Warren Weaver’s Natural Sciences program. The fellowship approach remained central to the Foundation for well over half a century, existing in various forms and ending only in the late 1990s.

In addition to training individuals, the IEB built key institutions in the sciences throughout Europe, from university departments to independent research centers. Much as he emphasized that the most talented scientists promised the best return on investments, so too did Rose aim to help the strongest of European institutions become stronger. Rose called his strategy “making the peaks higher,”[7] the belief that creating a few centers of excellence was more effective in his “campaign against human ignorance”[8] than spreading aid thin, risking mediocrity, and falling short of real innovation.

Social Knowledge

In addition to the dual emphases on public health and medical education, the idea of “promoting the well-being of mankind” called for some attention to the social aspects of human problems. Yet the RF had its hands full with the scope of the two commitments it had already established.  A solution came in 1917 when the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM) was established by JDR, Sr., and named for his late wife, in order to continue her interests in social welfare. In 1923 Beardsley Ruml was appointed director, and led the LSRM into the emerging and rapidly developing social sciences.

The LSRM was short-lived, lasting only until 1928, but laid important groundwork for RF interests in economics, foreign policy, urban affairs, and cross-cultural understanding. Ruml devised a program of disinterested inquiry into the pressing problems of the day. His program echoed the RF’s precept in the hard sciences that increasing knowledge would naturally lead to solutions. As he put it, “social knowledge is not a substitute for social righteousness, but knowledge is a far greater aid to righteousness than is ignorance.”[9]

To those ends, the LSRM largely worked to build the institutional infrastructure for the social sciences. It supported university departments of economics, sociology, and anthropology, and funded the work of non-governmental agencies such as the National Bureau of Economic Research. One of its lasting contributions was underwriting the establishment of the Social Science Research Council.

Evolution of a Foundation

By the 1920s, there were four Rockefeller boards in active operation: the Rockefeller Foundation, the GEB, the International Education Board, and the LRSM. Many of the trustees overlapped, and the priorities of the various boards were often in conflict with each other. Furthermore, the first generation of leadership, including Gates, Wallace Buttrick, Rose, Abraham Flexner and George Vincent, was nearing retirement. It was time for a recalibration of the Foundation. This first generation had brought the RF to prominence, but these early leaders were not trained philanthropic administrators – in fact, they largely had to invent their profession as they lived it. Their reformist zeal had helped shape the Foundation, but the increasingly complex and technical tasks of administrative maintenance had grown beyond them. Many of them complained about the rote tasks that now consumed their days, and the lack of time for reading, inquiry, and investigation.

Second China Medical Commission (Left to right: Dr. Wallace Buttrick, chairman; Dr. F.T. Gates, Secretary; Dr. Simon Flexner; Mr. Roger S. Greene, Resident Director of CMB; Dr. William H. Welch.), China 1915

Second China Medical Commission (Left to right: Dr. Wallace Buttrick, chairman Dr. F.T. Gates, Secretary; Dr. Simon Flexner; Mr. Roger S. Greene, Resident Director of CMB; Dr. William H. Welch.), China 1915

Beginning in 1925, RF President Vincent solicited input from the senior officers on how to reorganize. The trustees formed their own committee for review. Raymond Fosdick chaired the committee and formulated a plan to carry the RF forward. The Fosdick plan, approved in late 1928 and taking effect in January 1929, eliminated or absorbed the other boards and centralized control. It also marked a turn toward the targeted support of research along selected lines, often through smaller grants. After 1928 the RF emphasis would be on basic research rather than larger lump sums for buildings or endowments.


[1] Frederick T. Gates, Chapters in My Life (New York: The Free Press, 1977), p. 209.

[2] “An Act to Incorporate the Rockefeller Foundation,” January 23, 1917, The Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Office of the Messrs. Series O, Box 24, Folder 249.

[3] Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report 1915 (The Rockefeller Foundation: New York, 1915), p. 14 .

[4] John H. Knowles, “The Rockefeller Foundation 1913-1972: A Brief Review”, December 3, 1973, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 3.2, Series 900, Box 30, Folder 163.

[5] Raymond B. Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation (New York, Harper and Brothers, 1952), p. 86.

[6] RF Annual Report, 1924, p. 48. 

[7] Fosdick, “Introduction,” in George W. Gray, Education on an International Scale: A History of the International Education Board, 1923-1938 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941), p. vii.

[8] Gray, p. 8.

[9] “General Memorandum by the Director,” September 1922. RAC, LSRM Series II, Box 2, Folder 31, pp. 11-12.

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