Rockefeller Foundation Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Endowed by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and chartered by the state of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation was officially established “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” Through its grants, it succeeded in fostering improved health as well as many scientific and humanistic advances.

Summary of Event

After amassing an immense fortune through his Standard Oil Company, a seventy-year-old John D. Rockefeller, Sr., contemplated distributing a sizable proportion of his accumulated wealth to a foundation focused on stimulating human progress. He had already made large gifts to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (founded in 1901), the purpose of which was to assist scientists in investigating, preventing, and treating deadly diseases, and to the General Education Board (founded in 1902), which sought to improve American education, particularly in the South. Rockefeller Foundation Humanitarianism;Rockefeller Foundation Philanthropy;Rockefeller Foundation [kw]Rockefeller Foundation Is Founded (May 14, 1913) Rockefeller Foundation Humanitarianism;Rockefeller Foundation Philanthropy;Rockefeller Foundation [g]United States;May 14, 1913: Rockefeller Foundation Is Founded[03400] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 14, 1913: Rockefeller Foundation Is Founded[03400] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;May 14, 1913: Rockefeller Foundation Is Founded[03400] Rockefeller, John D. (1839-1937) Rockefeller, John D., Jr. (1874-1960) Gates, Frederick T. Flexner, Abraham Flexner, Simon Rose, Wickliffe Weaver, Warren Sulzer, William

John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had created these organizations with the assistance of Frederick T. Gates, who was head of the American Baptist Education Society when Rockefeller first met him in 1894. Within three years of this meeting, Gates had joined Rockefeller’s staff. According to scholars, Gates conceived the idea of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1905, when he wrote to John D. Rockefeller, Sr., about setting up a large philanthropy that would efficiently distribute his overseer’s money in ways that would truly benefit others.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had joined his father’s office after graduating from Brown University, studied Gates’s ideas. Under his father’s influence, the younger Rockefeller strove to find innovators with the right combination of “caution and zeal.” In some senses, the Rockefeller Foundation was created on June 29, 1909, when John D. Rockefeller, Sr., assigned more than seventy-two thousand shares of Standard Oil of New Jersey to his son, to his son-in-law Harold McCormick, and to Gates. In his deed of trust, he stipulated that this new institution was to be called the Rockefeller Foundation and that it would promote the well-being and advancement of civilization in the United States and other countries by encouraging the spread of knowledge and the assuagement of suffering. Rockefeller’s mandate was so broad that Gates wisely chose to restrict it to Gates’s own passionate interests in medicine and public health.

Rockefeller’s original intent was to obtain a congressional charter for this foundation, and in 1910 such a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate. However, because antitrust actions were under way against Rockefeller’s oil empire, this bill provoked controversy over the “tainted money” that would be used to set up the proposed foundation. After three years of contentious debate, Rockefeller abandoned his efforts for federal incorporation, and on May 14, 1913, his son and advisers secured passage of an act that incorporated the Rockefeller Foundation in New York with the approval of the legislature and William Sulzer, the governor. This state bill, which provoked little public reaction, summarized the institution’s purpose: “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” Once the bill was passed, Rockefeller gave thirty-five million dollars to the new foundation. Although the gift was in the form of securities, he made it clear that the officers of the Rockefeller Foundation were free to dispose of this wealth in any way that seemed wise.

During the foundation’s early history, the board of trustees was composed of representatives from the Rockefeller family, academics, industrialists, and financiers. According to one of these trustees, the best foundation policy was to have no policy, and the organization’s early activities were broad and flexible in scope. Abraham Flexner, whose work on the General Education Board had helped to improve American medical instruction and the practical training of doctors, expanded his efforts into public health while serving the Rockefeller Foundation. After his medical education and practical experience in the Philippines, Simon Flexner, Abraham’s brother, became a board member of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. He studied hookworm, a parasite that fastens itself to the intestinal wall and causes a disease marked by progressive anemia. He convinced Wickliffe Rose, an influential foundation trustee, that practical steps needed to be taken to eradicate this disease. Consequently, foundation officials established the International Health Commission, which Rose headed. Through the enlightened use of foundation funding in public health, Rose was able to reduce not only hookworm but also yellow fever and malaria in the United States and many foreign countries.

Although its major successes were in the medical sciences, the Rockefeller Foundation also fostered important advances in the physical and natural sciences. For example, it supported Niels Bohr’s important work in atomic and nuclear physics and Ernest Orlando Lawrence’s giant “atom-smashing” cyclotron, and it financed the two-hundred-inch reflecting telescope installed at Palomar Observatory in California. Through the able leadership of Warren Weaver, who headed the natural sciences division, the foundation played an important role in encouraging new fields such as molecular biology. Weaver believed that significant new discoveries would be made in the borderlands between the physical and life sciences, and the foundation’s funding for physical chemist Linus Pauling’s work supported his pivotal work on the structure of proteins.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s officials also sought to encourage human progress by funding projects in the social sciences and humanities. For example, Rockefeller Foundation funds helped finance the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1935), described as “a modest success.” That work was preceded by the more successful Dictionary of American Biography (1928), a multivolume set funded by the foundation’s grants and completed by the American Council of Learned Societies, a group of thousands of scholars in various disciplines who were interested in furthering the humanities.


The Rockefeller Foundation was the largest of the philanthropies created by the largess of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Because his gifts were mainly in the form of securities, and because market conditions varied widely after the organization’s founding, it is difficult to give a precise and complete figure of the foundation’s holdings, but one estimate, based on market value at the time that the gifts were made, gives a figure of close to $450 million. In the foundation’s early decades, its officials used public health campaigns to reduce the suffering and deaths caused by infectious diseases around the world.

The foundation’s role in the physical and natural sciences proved to be more controversial. Some scholars, for example, have claimed that Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation helped create new fields such as molecular biology, whereas others have asserted that the nature of scientific progress would have led to these fields’ establishment without the foundation’s funding (although Rockefeller money almost certainly helped accelerate developments). The Rockefeller Foundation’s encouragement of work in history, philosophy, and the creative arts did not create the spiritual renaissance for which early officials had hoped, but the foundation’s publication of series of scholarly volumes did serve a useful purpose. When scholars surveyed the foundation’s work after its first fifty years, they found that the health of people around the world had improved but that humankind’s future was threatened by war and growing environmental crises. Rockefeller Foundation Humanitarianism;Rockefeller Foundation Philanthropy;Rockefeller Foundation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farley, John. To Cast out Disease: A History of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, 1913-1951. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Historical study emphasizes how the Rockefeller Foundation influenced international cooperation between the United States and other countries on such issues as medical research and public health. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fosdick, Raymond Blaine. The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation. New York: Harper, 1952. Fosdick, who was president of the Rockefeller Foundation for twelve years, used his access to its files to write this definitive history of its founding and early development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jonas, Gerald. The Circuit Riders: Rockefeller Money and the Rise of Modern Science. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Focuses in large part on how difficult it is for officials of philanthropic organizations to predict the effects that their funding will have on the evolution of science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kay, Lily E. The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. By focusing on a single institution, attempts to show how Rockefeller Foundation officials and the scientists whose work they funded sought to “control” the new field of molecular biology. Extensive notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohler, Robert E. Partners in Science: Foundations and Natural Scientists, 1900-1945. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Draws on the archives of the Rockefeller Foundation and other foundations to show how funding by government, industry, and these foundations helped to create different forms of science. Extensive notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneider, William E., ed. Rockefeller Philanthropy and Modern Biomedicine: International Initiatives from World War I to the Cold War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Collection of essays addresses how the Rockefeller Foundation has influenced medical research through various endowments. Bibliographical references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaplen, Robert. Toward the Well-Being of Mankind: Fifty Years of the Rockefeller Foundation. New York: Doubleday, 1964. Illustrated account updates the foundation’s work since the publication of Fosdick’s book (cited above). Includes lists of foundation trustees, officers, and directors of programs. Index.

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