Dispensary for the treatment of hookworm in Greenbrier, Tennessee, in 1914.
1913. The United States was 137 years old. Woodrow Wilson was President. Niels Bohr formulated his theory of atomic structure. Grand Central Station opened, the Philadelphia Athletics beat the New York Giants in the World Series, World War I was imminent. And the work of the Rockefeller Foundation began.
In the years since John D. Rockefeller inaugurated the first global US foundation, scientists, scholars, economists, and grassroots leaders supported by the Foundation have spearheaded the search for the solutions to some of the world’s most challenging problems. Through their efforts, plagues such as hookworm and malaria have been brought under control; food production for the hungry in many parts of the world has been increased; and minds, hearts, and spirits have been lifted by the work of Foundation-assisted filmmakers, artists, writers, dancers, and composers. Rockefeller Foundation involvement has led to the development of the centrifuge, the electron microscope, and the computer.
The Foundation has always aspired to bold, global solutions. Approaching complex conceptual challenges and systemic dysfunction from a variety of angles has been the alpha and omega of the Foundation’s character and vision.
A Brazilian physician administers the yellow fever vaccine.
From its very first grant—to the American Red Cross—through its current initiatives, the Rockefeller Foundation has long been a trailblazer in the field of health. By fostering the emerging field of public health nearly a hundred years ago, the Foundation’s campaign against diseases and epidemics became dramatically more effective. Since then, the Foundation has energetically supported the development of public health schools and resources all over the world. That tradition is evident today in the Rockefeller Foundation’s current global health initiatives, which have sparked and strengthened efforts such as the use of eHealth technologies to improve health systems and the creation of international disease surveillance in the developing world.
Throughout its history, the Foundation has been primarily proactive in its approach to the world’s problems. For example, while we do not provide emergency relief for disasters, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina the Rockefeller Foundation took the long view in supporting the creation of the groundbreaking unified plan for building a more sustainable, more equitable New Orleans in the future.
While much research has gone into forestalling climate change, the Rockefeller Foundation concluded early on that it would also be critical to focus on climate change resilience and adaptation. Viewing climate change through this prism spotlights the inextricably-interrelated issues of rampant, unmanageable urbanization and the unraveling of society’s most basic safety nets. In our search for solutions, we look back on—and forward to—the interdisciplinary creative thinking that invariably supports survival in the world’s most stressed regions.
Whether in Latin America, Asia or Africa, the Foundation has approached the alleviation of hunger through improved agricultural systems, outputs, and markets. A major program of rural reconstruction in China began in 1934. In 1943, agricultural programs in Mexico lay the groundwork for what was to become known as the Green Revolution, which earned Foundation scientist Norman Borlaug a Nobel Prize and is credited with saving more than a billion lives around the world. That work continues today with Foundation support for A Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA).
The Vision of John D. Rockefeller
John Davison Rockefeller (1839 – 1937) embraced philanthropy early in life. In his teens, he was regularly donating money from his first job to his Sunday school and other activities of his Baptist church. As his personal wealth grew, so did his generosity. Impressed by an 1889 essay by Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller wrote to the philanthropist, “The time will come when men of wealth will more generally be willing to use it for the good of others.” It was that year that Rockefeller began his own philanthropic work in earnest, making the first of what would become $35 million in gifts, over a period of two decades, to found the University of Chicago.
In 1901 he established the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, now Rockefeller University. In 1903 he created the General Education Board at an ultimate cost of $129 million to promote education in the United States “without distinction of sex, race, or creed.”
The Rockefeller Foundation began its work in 1913 with the founder’s 39-year-old son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., as its president. The first grant, of $100,000, went to the American Red Cross to purchase property for its headquarters in Washington, DC. and for “a memorial to commemorate the services of the women of the United States in caring for the sick and wounded of the Civil War."
The General Education Board, founded by Rockefeller in 1903, promoted education "without distinction of sex, race, or creed."
Support for scholarship and educational opportunity—to colleges, schools, research institutions, and libraries—has been a part of the Foundation’s work in virtually every year of its existence. It supported some of the earliest and most substantial efforts to open the doors of higher education to African Americans. From supporting Peking Union Medical College and schools of public health across the globe to co-founding the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, the Foundation has implemented positive change through the increase of knowledge.
This was the genius of Rockefeller and his Foundation successors. They saw conditions that needed to change. They did their homework. They invested in cutting-edge research. They called on experts and put many of them on the payroll.
When a young Albert Einstein sent a request for $500 to John D. Rockefeller's top lieutenant, Rockefeller instructed his deputy, "Let's give him $1,000. He may be onto something." They experimented, adapted, and changed course when necessary. They didn't use the word innovation then; they called it "scientific philanthropy." But innovation was their game. It was bold and daring, intrepid and risk-taking.
Since its inception, John D. Rockefeller’s foundation has given more than $14 billion in current dollars to thousands of grantees worldwide.