Rockefeller Founds the Population Council

John D. Rockefeller III founded the Population Council to stimulate and sponsor research and education about the relationship between the world’s population and its material and cultural resources.

Summary of Event

On November 7, 1952, in New York City, John D. Rockefeller III incorporated the Population Council, an organization that has pioneered the study of population problems. Rockefeller belonged to a family that, through its connections with Chase Bank, Standard Oil, major Wall Street investment and law firms, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Republican Party, and the Rockefeller Foundation, was deeply involved during the early 1950’s in the nation’s economic life and political policies. During the 1940’s, Rockefeller had been the chair of Colonial Williamsburg and had held several positions with the U.S. Navy, most notably as special assistant on Far Eastern Affairs to a Navy undersecretary. Rockefeller’s interest in Asia, which increased markedly during the next few years, stimulated his concern about population issues. [kw]Rockefeller Founds the Population Council (Nov. 7, 1952)
[kw]Population Council, Rockefeller Founds the (Nov. 7, 1952)
Population Council
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Population Council
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[g]North America;Nov. 7, 1952: Rockefeller Founds the Population Council[03930]
[g]United States;Nov. 7, 1952: Rockefeller Founds the Population Council[03930]
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[c]Natural resources;Nov. 7, 1952: Rockefeller Founds the Population Council[03930]
[c]Environmental issues;Nov. 7, 1952: Rockefeller Founds the Population Council[03930]
Rockefeller, John D., III
McLean, Donald
Strauss, Lewis L.
Osborn, Frederick H.

In the summer of 1949, the U.S. State Department sent three staff members on a fact-finding tour to Asia. When the team returned to the United States, its members reported their conclusions about China to a group of experts, including Rockefeller, who were asked to recommend policies on how to deal with Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists. Two years later, Rockefeller accompanied diplomat John Foster Dulles Dulles, John Foster
[p]Dulles, John Foster;and John D. Rockefeller III[Rockefeller] on a mission to Japan to devise a treaty between the two countries to achieve stability and security in Asia. This trip to Asia inspired the philanthropist to undertake a series of projects to improve economic, social, and cultural conditions in Asia and thereby thwart the spread of communism.

Rockefeller’s sojourn in Japan in 1951 convinced him that halting population growth was a key to this effort. He was one of the first to understand how rapidly population was increasing in underdeveloped nations and to argue that this explosive growth would damage the world’s environment, deplete its natural resources, and hamper efforts to improve the lives of the poor. He insisted that economic progress was possible only if the runaway birthrate in the world’s developing countries was halted. To accomplish this, population research must be built on a scientific foundation, and new methods must be devised to curb births in the world’s poor nations. This was a tall order in the early 1950’s, as the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;contraception strongly opposed birth control measures, few scientists were studying population issues, and leaders of the world’s most densely populated countries had little apparent interest in population control. The opposition of the Communist bloc and Catholic countries, which both opposed measures to curb population growth on ideological grounds, thwarted action on this issue by the United Nations.

In 1952, Rockefeller replaced Dulles as the chair of the Rockefeller Foundation Rockefeller Foundation , a philanthropic organization that had millions of dollars of assets, significant international acclaim, and tremendous influence at home and abroad. Despite the foundation’s aims and his key position, Rockefeller was unable to convince its trustees to establish a program in population. Undeterred, Rockefeller assigned his chief aide, Donald McLean, the task of developing an organization that would conduct research on and educate the public about population issues.

Meanwhile, Lewis L. Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, who at the time was working as financial adviser to the Rockefeller brothers, suggested to John Rockefeller that he convene a group of leading scientists in the areas of demography, birth control, medicine, public health, conservation, nutrition, and agriculture to discuss population problems. At a conference held June 20-22, 1952, at Colonial Williamsburg, thirty-three participants discussed the world’s food supply, industrial development, depletion of natural resources, and potential political instability arising from unchecked population growth and unanimously adopted a resolution to establish a foundation to deal with population problems. Rockefeller sought to place the organization he hoped to create under the aegis of the scientific community in order to give it respectability and reduce potential conflict with the Catholic Church.

The philanthropist initially thought that this organization might be operated through the Rockefeller’s Brothers Fund, of which he was president. The foundation had been created to promote new kinds of philanthropy, but over the years its approach had become rather conservative. Fearing that Rockefeller’s proposed population project would strain the foundation’s resources and cause political controversy, the Brothers Fund decided not to sponsor it.

As a result, on November 7, 1952, Rockefeller, Strauss, and McLean, formed the Population Council to stimulate investigation of population problems. Rockefeller donated the entire first year’s budget of $250,000, became chair of the board, and selected Frederick H. Osborn to be president. As chief of the U.S. Army’s information and education program during World War II, a deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the postwar years, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a director and past president of the Population Association of America, and an author of respected books on eugenics, Osborn brought impressive credentials to the position.

Under the leadership of Rockefeller and Osborn, the council proposed to study problems caused by the world’s rapidly growing population, to encourage and support research on population issues, to disseminate these findings to the public, to serve as a center for the collection and exchange of information on population questions, to cooperate with individuals and institutions who had similar interests, and to undertake initiatives designed to alleviate population problems.


In August, 1953, with its funding and staff in place, the council formally announced its existence. Its formation, a New York Times editorial argued, was a response to the recent revival of the Malthusian doctrine that the world’s population was increasing more rapidly than its supply of food and natural sources. This doctrine was proclaimed by William Vogt’s Road to Survival (1948) and Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet (1948) and was reasserted by economists, public health officials, and government leaders.

Convinced that the obstacles of tradition, economic restraints, and vested interests would make it very difficult for the council to provide trustworthy information on the world’s food and resources, to accurately predict the world’s future population, or to devise technological methods to curb population growth, The
New York Times editorial concluded that “[n]o organization was ever created from which so much is expected.”

A statement Rockefeller made on population issues in 1951 served as the council’s credo because it aspired to meet those high expectations. The credo says that “[S]olutions to questions of population involve ultimately not only matters of physical and material well-being, but also those of a cultural, moral, and spiritual nature.”

During the next ten years, as the American public became alarmed about the world’s potential population increase, the council played a critical role in promoting research in the field of population studies. The council sought to accomplish two controversial goals—furnishing technical assistance to help underdeveloped countries control population growth and convincing the United States to conduct a national population study. The council’s grants to universities and institutes in the 1950’s helped transform the work of a few scholars into a new academic discipline.

The council’s influence Environmental policy, U.S.;population control was evident in a 1958 State Department digest on world population trends, which warned that explosive population growth could significantly hinder economic and social progress and produce political conflict in less developed countries. The next year, a subcommittee headed by retired General William Draper Draper, William reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that long-term economic aid to poor nations could succeed only if the aid were accompanied by programs in population control. By the end of the council’s first decade, population issues had become a major concern of U.S. foreign policy, and major foundations and the federal government were supplying almost all of the council’s $15 million annual budget.

In the years that followed, the council became more international in character and focus. It was one of the first American organizations to conduct scholarly research in developing countries, to urge their governments to create national policies on population, and to offer them assistance in establishing population programs. The findings of the council and the testimony of its staff before congressional committees have helped shape American policy on population issues.

The council’s stated purpose is to “improve the well-being and reproductive health of current and future generations around the world and to help achieve a humane, equitable, and sustainable balance between people and resources.” To achieve these aims, the council conducts programs in the social, health, and biomedical fields.

In addition, the council seeks to strengthen professional resources in poor nations by providing fellowships to scholars in the social and health sciences. Finally, it strives to educate academicians and policy makers about population issues by sponsoring international conferences and by publishing two scholarly journals and numerous books.

When the Population Council was founded in 1952, few individuals, organizations, or governments were concerned about population issues. By the council’s fortieth anniversary, population trends had become a worldwide concern, addressed in hundreds of national policies and by dozens of international organizations. Nevertheless, the subject of reducing population growth continues to provoke contention and debate.

Since its creation, the Population Council has been consistently guided by an ideal that Rockefeller expressed in a speech at the World Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974. He said,

[O]ur objective is the enrichment of human life, not its restriction. There is only one reason for concerning ourselves about population—to improve the quality of people’s lives, to help make it possible for individuals everywhere to develop their full potential.

Through his vision, funding, personality, and leadership in world population issues until his death in 1978, Rockefeller contributed much to the creation, success, and continuing mission of the council. Population Council
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Further Reading

  • Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz. The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976. A study of four generations of the Rockefeller family that discusses the personality, interests, and accomplishments of John D. Rockefeller III. Provides a good account of the events leading to the establishment of the Population Council. References and index.
  • Harr, John E., and Peter J. Johnson. The Rockefeller Conscience: An American Family in Public and Private. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. An account of the creation and ongoing activities of the council. Provides an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the people, especially John D. Rockefeller III, and factors involved in the founding and program of the council. Includes photographs, extensive notes, and an index.
  • McKee, Jeffrey K. Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Explores the cause-and-effect relationship between human population growth and the squeezing out of animals and plants, all to the detriment of a healthy and sustaining life on Earth. Maps, illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Miller, Berna, and James D. Torr, eds. Developing Nations. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, Thomson/Gale, 2003. An excellent resource outlining the persistent concerns of developing nations, including family planning. Presented in a pro-versus-con format.
  • Piotrow, Phyllis. World Population Crisis: The United States Response. New York: Praeger, 1973. A helpful discussion of the social and political context in which the council arose and operated during its first two decades as Americans gradually awakened to the population crisis. Examines the ambivalent relationship during the 1950’s between scientists and activists concerned about population issues.
  • Population Council. Country Profiles. An ongoing journal series of brief studies, published by the council. Each study examines a particular nation’s population size and growth pattern; the gender, age, ethnic, and religious composition and the rural-urban distribution of its population; its literacy rate; marriage patterns; attitudes toward fertility; social and economic development; and population programs.
  • _______. The Population Council: A Chronicle of the First Twenty-five Years, 1952-1977. New York: Author, 1978. An in-house history of the establishment and accomplishments of the council through 1977.
  • Symonds, Richard, and Michael Carder. The United Nations and Population Questions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. Another useful analysis of world attitudes toward population matters during the first two decades of the council’s existence. Explains why the 1950’s was a “period of quiescence” in the population field.

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