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Toward a "Universal Heritage": Education and the Development of Rockefeller Philanthropy, 1884-1913.

by Kenneth W. Rose & Darwin H. Stapleton - 1992

Discusses the Rockefellers' educational philanthropy, specifically, the Rockefeller Foundation, University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, and Spelman College. Rockefeller created the agencies to handle the identification and development of a constituency, the capability to define and redefine missions, the creation of future leadership, and the relationship of agencies to future philanthropy. (Source: ERIC)


Ignorance is the source of a large part of the poverty and a vast amount of the crime in the world-hence the need of education. If we assist the highest forms of education in whatever field-we secure the widest influence in enlarging the boundaries of human knowledge; for all the new facts discovered or set in motion become the universal heritage. I think we cannot overestimate the importance of this matter. The mere fact that most of the great achievements in science, medicine, art, and literature are the flower of the higher education is sufficient. Some great writer will one day show how these things have ministered to the wants of all people, educated and uneducated, high and low, rich and poor, and made life more what we all wish it to be.


-John D. Rockefeller, Random Reminiscences of Men and Events


In the long history of Rockefeller philanthropy, beginning with the small contributions recorded by John D. Rockefeller in his first account book (Ledger A) in November 1855, few themes have been as constant as education. Rockefeller’s own formal education ended at age sixteen and extended only as far as Central High School and Folsom’s Commercial College in Cleveland, Ohio, but he viewed education as perhaps the major engine of human progress, responsible for disseminating broadly the lessons learned from religion and science. Indeed, the first major philanthropic corporation Rockefeller created, the General Education Board (GEB), was devoted specifically to promoting education in the United States-especially in the South-“without distinction to race, sex or creed.”1 By the time its trustees voted to end its active grant-making program in 1964, the General Education Board had contributed more than $320 million to such efforts as improving and expanding secondary and higher education for African Americans; improved public education in general, including the development of schools of education and of state departments of education; and, at the college and university level, reforming the system of medical education, improving teachers’ salaries, and promoting and improving instruction in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and professional graduate education. The General Education Board also contributed nearly $33 million for the general endowment, buildings, facilities, and current expenses at numerous institutions of higher education.2


The lasting and continuing impact of Rockefeller philanthropy on education can best be seen in four enduring institutions that owe their existence to John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.: Spelman College, an institution devoted to the education of black women in an environment free of the burdens of both racism and sexism; the University of Chicago, a major university that has been a pioneer in graduate education; the Rockefeller University, a leading medical research institute; and the Rockefeller Foundation, a general multipurpose foundation charged with promoting “the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” These institutions have been able to maintain themselves over time in part because of the style of early Rockefeller philanthropy. Elements of the Rockefeller philanthropic style included a faith in certain individuals, the quality of their work, and their expansive visions; a policy of making gifts to universities conditional on the raising of additional funds; and a general lack of restrictions on the ultimate uses of the gifts. The open-ended nature of this early philanthropy became one of the hallmarks of Rockefeller giving.


The history of the successive creation of Spelman College, the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller University, and the Rockefeller Foundation from 1884 to 1913 suggests that Rockefeller and his advisers underwent a learning process as they explored and developed the realm of educational philanthropy. They learned about the needs of excellence in education, the perils of retaining a continuing patron’s relationship, the creation of new constituencies, and the definition and redefinition of institutional mission. In a manner analogous to business entrepreneurship, Rockefeller and his advisers gradually acquired experience in the educational field and became more willing to take greater risks in the kinds of institutions they created.




John D. Rockefeller, Sr.’s philanthropy was a lifetime endeavor. His Baptist principles led him to give consistently to church and charity from his youth. By the 1870s he had sufficient income to take on the role of the traditional patron of the poor and needy, giving directly to the widowed and the disabled, needy seminary students, and cultural and medical organizations. By the 1880s Rockefeller’s wealth had grown such that he could significantly influence or endow major institutions.


As he turned to this new phase of philanthropy, Rockefeller brought to bear his accumulated knowledge of two institutions, business and religion, as he attempted to shape a third type, the academic. The founder and leader of the Standard Oil Company (1870), Rockefeller was an innovator in business, one of the creators of new business forms appropriate to the age of national and international markets, mass-production technology, and immense capital accumulation. His Standard Oil Trust (1882) was a monopoly device that not only controlled the refining and transportation of petroleum and its products, but created a system of effective internal financial controls and promoted technological innovation. In the religious field Rockefeller was a committed churchman, serving his Cleveland congregation in the highest capacities, and was active in evangelical and reform organizations such as the YMCA and temperance societies.


To this knowledge of secular and sacred bureaucracy Rockefeller grafted a developing interest in higher education, despite his own lack of a college education. Not surprisingly, his primary concern was the support of seminaries and religiously affiliated colleges. Much of his early educational giving was channeled through two Baptist organizations, the American Baptist Home Mission Society and later the American Baptist Education Society. Through the latter he provided nearly $540,000 to thirty-four different Baptist educational institutions between 1889 and 1898.3 Undoubtedly, like many of his contemporaries in American Protestantism, he believed that training ministers and potential missionaries was central to the success of the evangelical movement in the United States and throughout the world. Possessed of a brilliant and penetrating mind, though not an intellectual himself, Rockefeller certainly promoted higher education because he believed it had the potential of improving the human condition generally. Yet the roots of his faith in education were religious, and as Rockefeller put it in a clearly religious image, even the greatest achievements of science, medicine, art, and literature were to be valued by the extent to which they “ministered to the wants of all people.”4


Three types of institutional structures- business, religion, and education- provide the context in which Rockefeller’s philanthropy can best be understood. His philanthropy grew increasingly effective as he and his advisers moved from traditional, personal philanthropy toward an institutionalized corporate philanthropy based on business experience.




As John D. Rockefeller, assisted by his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his advisers began to move from personal philanthropy to corporate philanthropy, he was motivated by a desire to effect certain social changes in American (and, later, global) society. The changes they supported were no different from those sought by many other evangelical reformers of his era, but Rockefeller possessed far larger resources, and the question of effective and efficient application of those resources became increasingly insistent. To ensure that the goals of his philanthropy could be reached and maintained, Rockefeller and his advisers tried to create agencies that continually coped with four dimensions of institutionalization: the identification and development of a constituency; the capability to define and redefine a mission; the creation of future leadership; and the relationship of these agencies to future philanthropy.




One of the hallmarks of American philanthropy has been its response to changing social concerns and support for new populations in need. Following the Civil War, the education of black Americans became a major social issue. During the late 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, three forces resulted in the creation of numerous schools for southern blacks: (1) an intense desire for learning on the part of freed slaves and their children; (2) the arrival of teachers from the North; and (3) the financial and material support of northern benevolent and missionary societies. In the early 1880 Rockefeller joined this educational cause by making donations to a school for “colored women” operated by two veteran New England schoolteachers, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles.5


Packard and Giles, the founders of Spelman, were missionary teachers who drew their support from the North. In February 1880, Packard began a tour of the South to survey the conditions of life for freed slaves for the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society (WABHMS), an organization she had helped form in Boston in 1877 as an auxiliary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS), which had been supporting Baptist missions and building mission schools since its founding in 1832 .6 During her tour, Packard fell ill, and she was joined by her long-time friend and teaching colleague Harriet Giles. What they saw during the remainder of their tour disturbed them profoundly. By the time they returned to Boston in April 1880, these two “must-have-been outrageous stubborn white women,” as the current president of their institution has described them,’ had determined to open a school for black women in the South. During the next year, Packard, at age fifty-seven, and Giles, at age forty-eight, worked successfully to persuade the reluctant WABHMS to provide financial support for the school.


With persistence and the enthusiastic cooperation of black ministers in Atlanta, Packard and Giles opened their school, the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, in the basement of the Friendship Baptist Church on April 11, 1881. On opening day, the two teachers had only eleven students, but soon the demand for their services prompted them to limit enrollment to those over age fifteen. Within a year, the school numbered two hundred students and space had become a major problem, leading the founders to begin a campaign to raise money for a new building.


In June 1882 their fund-raising efforts took them to Cleveland, Ohio, where a former New England student of theirs invited them to speak at his church. John D. Rockefeller was among those in the audience. Impressed by their description of their work and himself the husband of a former schoolteacher, Rockefeller donated $81 to Packard and Giles’s efforts and pledged $250 toward their building fund. He reportedly suggested that more support would be forthcoming if the women persisted in their efforts.


Rockefeller’s gift and his pledge were typical of his charitable giving during this time. The project was religious in nature and related to the Baptist church, and the personal contact of the Cleveland minister and his recommendation of Packard and Giles to Rockefeller was important. Throughout his philanthropic career, Rockefeller relied heavily on the advice and recommendations of someone who could investigate the worthiness and merit of a specific request. At first he relied on his personal contact with the applicant or that of a friend or colleague; later he came to rely on established Baptist institutions for advice about which schools and missionary efforts merited support. When he paid his $250 building pledge to Packard and Giles in February 1883, for example, he channeled the money through the ABHMS, characteristically contributing through an existing organization that could provide information about the development and progress of the institution. Although his contributions to the school often went through the ABHMS, Rockefeller continued to maintain direct contact with Packard and Giles.8


An especially desperate appeal reached Rockefeller in early 1884. To help relieve the space problem at the Packard and Giles school, the ABHMS purchased the former U.S. Army barracks and land, and in February 1883 the school was moved to its new spacious site. But the new site brought new problems, for the ABHMS intended the land to also serve as the location for its all-male Atlanta Baptist Seminary, the Packard and Giles school becoming the “Girls’ Department” of the male school. Packard, Giles, and their supporters in Massachusetts strongly objected to this plan. They believed firmly in the value of separate schools for women in order to properly train women for their crucial social roles as mothers and homemakers.9 As a result of these protests, the ABHMS changed its plan and offered the women the school site for an all-female school if they could raise the money to pay the remaining $11,500 mortgage on the land.


Rockefeller pledged $2,500 to their effort, but by late December 1883, prospects for raising the full amount were dim. With the deadline rapidly approaching, Sophia Packard wrote America’s wealthiest Baptist a six-page letter of appeal on December 29. “Can it be,” she wondered in disbelief, “that for the lack of a few thousand dollars the Baptist denomination will suffer this school to be given up! Can you not come to our relief and give of your abundance as God has prospered you ?” An appeal to the ego followed a few lines later: “Give it a name; let it if you please be called Rockefeller College, or, if you prefer let it take your good wife’s maiden name or any other which best suits you.”10


Initially unimpressed by this suggestion, Rockefeller, who was then overburdened with other appeals, responded that he was unable to provide further assistance. But the deadline for paying the mortgage was extended, and after a series of meetings with ABHMS corresponding secretary Henry L. Morehouse, Rockefeller contributed the $7,200 the founders still needed for the mortgage. His gift thus enabled Packard and Giles to maintain their school as one that served black women. Rockefeller also agreed to have the school named in honor of his wife’s devout abolitionist parents, Harvey and Lucy Spelman. On the third anniversary of the school’s opening, the name was officially changed to Spelman Seminary.


Throughout the remainder of the 1880s and into the 1890s donations to Spelman Seminary were a staple of Rockefeller’s charity. In an important sense, the aid Rockefeller and other philanthropists gave to black education during this period was philanthropy of the traditional kind: It was a relationship between the highest and lowest socioeconomic classes, providing the latter with an opportunity to escape the disabilities imposed by society, yet promoting paths of advancement that did not challenge the existing social structure. Moreover, philanthropy aimed at the education of blacks was traditional because it tended to create a continuing patron-client relationship that gave the donor a sense of proprietorship and the officers of the institution some sense of security and a basis for planning the future.


On the other hand, the kind of institution envisioned by the founders of Spelman, and which Rockefeller by his ready philanthropy implicitly supported, did not in its initial form emphasize the manual and industrial training that became the focus of many post-Civil War institutions for blacks. Industrial training in such tasks as “sewing, dressmaking, domestic science and nurse-training” had its place at Spelman, but this was “a secondary place,” as Harriet Giles noted in a letter in 1901. Spelman was among those missionary schools “whose primary purpose is to educate teachers and preachers,” aiming to create a professional elite who would provide inspiration and leadership to the next generation of blacks.”


This outlook prevailed during the presidential tenures of the founders of Spelman (1881-1909), but soon changed with their deaths. The presidency of Lucy Hale Tapley (19101927) witnessed a strong emphasis on industrial and vocational training at the expense of liberal arts. In 1914, Tapley stated her philosophy clearly: “Any course of study which fails to cultivate a taste and fitness for practical and efficient work in some part of the field of the world’s needs is unpopular at Spelman and finds no place in the curriculum.”12 A survey of the school in 1916 found that 738 students were being served by Spelman, but only 10 were enrolled in the college department; 237 were in the high school department, 24 were studying to be teachers, 390 were enrolled in the normal practice school, 26 were nursing students, 31 were studying dressmaking, and 20 were enrolled in the night school.13


During the 1920s, Spelman, like other black colleges, began to retreat from the overemphasis on industrial training. l4 In 1924, it officially changed its name to Spelman College and began to alter its curriculum in accordance with the requirements of a college, phasing out the more vocational departments and adding facilities for and instruction in science. The resignation of Tapley as president in 1927, at a time when the head of the Spelman Board of Trustees, Trevor Arnett, was also president of the General Education Board, provided further opportunity for a major reorganization of the college.”


When Florence Read was designated the new president, she agreed to accept the position only if an endowment was provided for the school, and Rockefeller philanthropy swung into action. John D. Rockefeller had refused to provide an endowment for Spelman when the issue was raised in 19051906, relying on the advice of his younger generation of advisers and acting contrary to the wishes of old friends such as Morehouse and Wallace Buttrick. He did, however, provide the GEB with $250,000 to be invested so that the income could be appropriated each year to Spelman.16 By the 1920s, however, it became apparent to Spelman’s supporters, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., that the future of the school lay in its becoming truly an institution of higher learning, which required a more substantial source of income. The younger Rockefeller expressed no interest in continuing the support of another “so-called Negro college,” but if it aimed to become a pioneer in higher education for blacks, then he was willing to provide support. Of the $3 million sought for the endowment, Arnett, with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s help, secured nearly all of it from Rockefeller philanthropic sources: $1.5 million from the GEB and $1 million from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. Moreover, the $250,000 that John D. Rockefeller had given to the GEB for Spelman in 1906 was given directly to Spelman by the GEB, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., agreed to underwrite $25,000 in additional pledges to ensure the success of the campaign. “Of all the investments we have made as a family,” John D. Rockefeller wrote to the school to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 1931, “Spelman stands among its best.”18


With the endowment in place, Florence Reed (president 1927-1953) undertook the transformation of Spelman into a liberal arts college during the period that Spelman’s historians have characterized as a time of “cultural awakening” and intellectual enrichment. The growth of the college continued under Read’s black male successors, Albert Manley (president, 1953-1976) and Donald Stewart (president, 1976-1987). By the time Johnnetta B. Cole came to Rockefeller Hall in 1987 as the college’s first black woman president, Spelman was receiving national recognition for the quality of its education, possessed an endowment of more than $40 million, and had an enrollment of more than 1,700 students.”


The profoundly human story of Spelman’s beginnings, the school’s grounding in the very idea of service to a population in need, and the founders’ exhortation to Spelman women to maintain “a loyal scorn of second best”19 all continue to provide inspiration and a sense of mission to Spelman’s students, faculty, and administration. Indeed, with its first “sister president” in the early years of her tenure in Rockefeller Hall, Spelman College has finally come into its own as an institution of, by, and for black women. Poised at the beginning of a new phase of its history, Spelman had rededicated itself to the idea of service to the larger community, a fact illustrated by the board of trustees’ creation of a committee on community service, headed by Spelman graduate and former board president Marian Wright Edelman.


Cole views the school’s challenging future with a mixture of optimism and concern. She is concerned about the need for resources to provide scholarships for “these unbelievably bright, articulate, spiritual, creative young black women” from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds who could not attend Spelman without such support. She is also concerned that the school hold on to its “gold mine” of top-notch black professors, who are increasingly sought after by the nation’s leading universities. But Cole is optimistic that the strengths of the school, such as its experience and ability at training women scientists and educating future black women professors, will continue to attract resources. Spelman is, she argues, one of those institutions that, with philanthropic support, can “make a quantum leap in the world of quality.”20




The story of John D. Rockefeller’s role in the founding of the University of Chicago has been recounted by several biographers and historians of the university. 21 His founding of the University of Chicago illustrates clearly his continuing concern with Baptist causes, the careful scrutiny he gave to the merits of various appeals he received, his reliance on the advice and opinions of experts, and the problems associated with a major commitment to a project by a single donor.


As with Spelman College, Rockefeller’s involvement with the University of Chicago had roots in his interest in the educational missionary work of the Baptist church. 22 As the American Baptist Home Mission Society worked to strengthen existing colleges and to build others to serve new regions of the growing country, denominational leaders began to dream of founding a major university under Baptist leadership. Chief among these denominational leaders was Augustus H. Strong of the Rochester Theological Seminary, who proposed to Rockefeller the creation of such a university in New York City. But the financial failure of the first Baptist college in Chicago, the University of Chicago (1856 1886), led local Baptist leaders to undertake efforts to locate the denomination’s dreamed-of great university in that growing city to serve the “West.” Rockefeller had earlier refused to provide assistance for the failing Chicago university, despite having been a generous supporter of the seminary associated with it, the Baptist Union Theological Seminary.


Supporters of both the New York and Chicago plans had laid their ideas before the wealthiest Baptist in the United States by 1886. Not particularly impressed by the practicality of these plans, Rockefeller refused to commit himself to either. By 1888 many Baptist leaders, concerned about the inadequate state of Baptist colleges and seminaries, had launched an effort to create a new organization devoted to raising money to strengthen existing Baptist schools. When organized in May 1888, the American Baptist Education Society (ABES) was also given responsibility for investigating the issue of establishing a great Baptist university.


By October 1888, the corresponding secretary of the ABES, Frederick T. Gates, had prepared a persuasive report, “The Need for a Baptist University in Chicago, as Illustrated by a Study of Baptist Collegiate Education in the West.” Gates’s report, the unanimous endorsement it received from the executive board of the ABES that December, and the opinions of other Baptist leaders whom Rockefeller respected, trusted, and carefully consulted all helped convince Rockefeller of the merits of the Chicago plan.


By May 1889, Rockefeller was prepared to make a contribution of $400,000 toward the proposed school in Chicago, but discussions with Frederick Gates convinced him to increase his initial contribution to $600,000. Always careful not to be too far in advance of the rest of the denomination, however, Rockefeller asked Gates to keep his planned contribution secret until the leaders of the ABES endorsed the Chicago plan and agreed to raise an endowment of $1 million. Moments after they did so, Gates was permitted to announce that more than half the endowment for the new school had already been donated by John D. Rockefeller.


As biographers have noted, Rockefeller’s contributions to the University of Chicago illustrate the principles of his giving. His contribution was made through an established organization for a cause that was sound; he had investigated the issue thoroughly, seeking out expert advice and opinion; and his donations were conditional on other money being raised from other sources, to ensure that the institution enjoyed wide support and was not dependent on any one source of income. The sheer volume of his giving, however, firmly attached his name to the institution, and he was repeatedly asked to contribute more to guarantee the success of his prior investments in this new institution. On a scale much larger than with Spelman, Rockefeller was expected to subsidize the forward movement of the school. Rockefeller believed he was funding a college that would evolve into a major university, but he “found himself having to give more in succeeding years to help the university meet operating deficits, as well as buying land and donating it,“23 so that William Rainey Harper could proceed with his exuberant plans to create a great university. Rockefeller believed firmly in Harper, his vision for the school, and his plan for graduate education, and continued to supply the sums requested, all the while asking for reforms to remedy what have been characterized as “slipshod financial and administrative practices” at the university.24


Not until 1910 was Rockefeller’s role as founder of the university at an end. The letter announcing his final gift of $10 million, and the resignations of his representatives from the board of trustees, articulated his pride in, and summed up his vision of, the accomplishment: “In the multitude of students so quickly gathered, in the high character of the instruction, in the variety and extent of original research, in the valuable contributions to human knowledge, in the uplifting influence of the University as a whole upon education throughout the West, my highest hopes have been far exceeded.”25


Between 1892 and 1920, when the last installment of this final gift was paid, the Rockefeller family accounted for 68 percent of all giving to the university ($34 million of a total $50 million). In the next eighteen years, the family’s giving accounted for 4 percent of university gifts, but grants by philanthropic boards established by the Rockefellers made up 46 percent of gifts received by the university ($40 million of $86 million). By May of 1941, total contributions to the University of Chicago from Rockefeller sources totaled more than $84 million.26


Clearly Rockefeller contributions to the university did not end with the founder’s final gift. In reviewing these figures and the change from individual to corporate philanthropy, however, Trevor Arnett noted a significant change in philanthropic support that continues to be a concern to college and university officials today: “As contrasted with Mr. Rockefeller’s contributions, the contributions from the [Rockefeller] Boards have placed greater emphasis on current purposes, which did not add to the permanent resources of the University. Whether for current support, endowment or plant, Board contributions have been for specific purposes and, frequently, new developments-again not adding to the permanent general resources of the University. It is evident that the Boards have had an important part in determining the structure of the University.”27


The University of Chicago today regards itself as “the nation’s most celebrated teacher of teachers.” It cites among its accomplishments the development of liberal arts extension programs for adults, establishing a coherent program of general education for undergraduates, and initiating a full-time medical school teaching faculty. For Dr. Hanna H. Gray, president of the university since 1978, the founders’ clarity of purpose, their commitment to graduate education, to building “a sense of an academic community” by creating a university right from the start, and the commitment to diversity, openness, and access to different populations implicit in their founding of a coeducational institution, all continue to be guiding principles for the modern university.”




John D. Rockefeller’s educational philanthropy departed from the college-university form with the founding of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (renamed the Rockefeller University in 1965). It was also the first Rockefeller institution to feel the hand of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had graduated from Brown University and entered his father’s office in 1897. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., worked closely with Frederick T. Gates, the Baptist minister who had become the senior Rockefeller’s primary philanthropic adviser in 1891 as a result of their association through the American Baptist Education Society.


It was by all accounts Gates who first had a vision of funding a program of research that would seek to provide cures for the endemic diseases of mankind. On reading a copy of William Osler’s Principles and Practice of Medicine (1892), he was struck by the gap between knowledge of the course of disease (pathology) and the ability to cure it (medicine). Yet Gates and other well-read people knew that there was emerging in the highest circles of medicine and science the ability to isolate and identify germs that caused certain diseases, to develop vaccines, and to kill germs and control their spread.


In 1900 Gates and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began to seek the advice of leading American scientists and physicians regarding the best means of promoting the kind of scientific and medical research that could close the gap. They knew of several scientific research centers in Europe, including the Pasteur Institute in France, an independent research laboratory named for and initially led by the most famous of the nineteenth-century researchers into disease and bacteriology.


Gates and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in considering whether to commit the senior Rockefeller’s resources to the project, had to answer two questions. First, were major advances in the treatment of widespread diseases likely to emerge from more intense application of existing laboratory techniques at an American version of the Pasteur Institute? Second, was there a sufficient body of trained persons, primarily in the United States, to adequately staff such an institute?


On the first point one of the experts they consulted, Dr. T. Mitchell Prudden of Bellevue Hospital (New York), summarized the view of most informed observers that “four-fifths of the existing suffering from disease . . . is avoidable through the diffusion and application among the people of the knowledge of disease and its causes, which science has recently brought to light and which is now largely ignored.”29 Other experts were uncertain whether a research constituency existed. American medical schools had few research positions, and few American universities were committed to such related fields as bacteriology, biochemistry, and pathology.


Therefore, although Rockefeller committed himself to the creation of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in the spring of 1901, the new organization began by making grants to promising researchers in the United States and Europe rather than by immediately investing in buildings and staff. It was two years before laboratory space was rented in New York and a permanent staff was on hand. The institute’s own buildings were not dedicated until 1906. The grant program continued to 1917 as a pioneering effort to develop a network of leading-edge researchers in the biomedical sciences.30


During the Rockefeller Institute’s first decade, its trustees painstakingly assembled a staff of the highest caliber, with Simon Flexner as director (1902), and including Alexis Carrel, P. A. T. Levene, Samuel J. Meltzer, Hideyo Noguchi, and Eugene L. Opie. This group was conscious of its leadership in biomedical research in the United States. They eagerly accepted the institute’s role as a postgraduate training center for outstanding graduates of American and foreign universities, filling their laboratories with research assistants who would spread the gospel of biomedicine throughout the world. This new constituency, an elite vanguard of research, was often drawn on to staff the later Rockefeller organizations to enter the medical field, the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease (1909) and the commission’s successor, the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation (1913).


The research program of the Rockefeller Institute, attacking the most widespread diseases of humankind, was from the beginning directed toward both immediate and long-term results. The institute had a hospital to observe particular cases and their treatment, as well as laboratories centered on investigating the physical and chemical processes common to many diseases and functions of living tissue.


For many years the researchers at the institute carried out their work in the security of knowing that John D. Rockefeller, Sr.‘s contributions (which eventually amounted to over $54 million) were sufficient to fully support their laboratories. The trustees protected this status by keeping the institute at a modest size, and by relying on the institute’s board of scientific directors to assess and critique the research program in order to ensure its excellence. Not until the 1950s, when American scientific research was revolutionized by a massive infusion of federal dollars, did the trustees decide to seek funding to supplement the original Rockefeller endowment. The decision emerged out of a general reevaluation that resulted in the creation of a graduate program in 1955, and an expansion of the size and scope of the institute’s programs. To reflect that change, the institute was renamed The Rockefeller University in 1965. Although another reevaluation scaled back some of the new programs in the 1970s, the university’s reliance on outside funding grew to account for about 70 percent of its budget. Much of this increase was due to the increased costs of conducting research. Dr. Joshua Lederberg, the university’s president from 1978 until 1990, notes that the current importance of the study of DNA in biomedicine “is very demanding in technology and support and [laboratory] groups get ever larger with that type of work, [while] their productivity increases immensely.” The university faces a continuing struggle to reach its goal of having an annual operating budget with 50 percent of its income from nongovernmental sources.31


Increased outside support has brought with it outside review of the university’s research programs, and a staff that (like most’ American researchers) must devote some portion of its time to the grant-making process rather than research. Yet the aim of the university, according to Lederberg, is “to furnish first-class investigators the freedom to set their own directions and determine their own research objectives,” and he believes that it does so at a “level of institutional support and freedom” rarely seen elsewhere.32 Over the years, the university’s faculty and students have won nineteen Nobel prizes, and Lederberg estimates that while the university expends about 1 percent of the funding for basic biomedical research in the United States, it accounts for 5 percent of the highly cited research publications in the field.




The Rockefeller Foundation (1913) came into being after John D. Rockefeller and his advisers recognized the inadequacy of existing eleemosynary institutions, including organized religion, as agents for dealing with fundamental causes of human misery and distress. “The best philanthropy,” Rockefeller wrote in 1909, involves “a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”33 The moral imperative that motivated Rockefeller led him to seek ever more worthy causes to which his rapidly growing fortune could be devoted, while his desire for efficiency and effectiveness led him away from the existing models of philanthropy, including those he had already utilized, because they were created with limited purposes.


The Rockefeller Foundation was in one sense the culmination of John D. Rockefeller’s application of business and religious models to education. Structurally it was a philanthropic mirror image of a business corporation: It had a self-perpetuating board of trustees, a charter virtually without limits (so long as all activity was philanthropic), and a paid-in capital. Like that of many a modern corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation’s constituency was the entire human race.


The idea of the foundation was first formulated by Frederick Gates in 1905 as several “great, corporate philanthropies” to focus on the improvement of several areas of society.34 Discussions with Rockefeller and his son over the next few years refined this vision into a single foundation, perhaps drawing on their knowledge of the creation of three new general-purpose foundations: the Milbank Memorial Fund (1905), the Russell Sage Foundation (1907), and the Carnegie Corporation (1911).


Rockefeller set aside a trust fund for a future foundation in 1909, and after an abortive attempt to obtain a national charter from Congress, persuaded the New York legislature to create the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913. Its mission was stated simply as the promotion of “the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” As with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, John D. Rockefeller provided ample funds, creating an original endowment of $35 million and increasing it to over $180 million by 1919.


At their first meeting the foundation’s trustees agreed that the continuation of the hookworm campaign of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission was one of the most productive lines of work to be undertaken, both on account of the direct physical and economic benefits resulting from the eradication of the disease and also on account of the usefulness of this work as a means of creating and promoting constituencies that might be utilized in other lines of educational or humanitarian work.35


This interest in the creation of constituencies that would respond favorably to future innovations was the hallmark of the major new programs of the Rockefeller Foundation throughout its career.36 Although World War I diverted its efforts primarily to programs of humanitarian aid and war relief, beginning in 1919 the foundation focused on the promotion and development of the medical sciences.37


The foundation’s program supported the establishment of schools of medicine and public health worldwide, with the intent of stimulating the rise of numerous centers of indigenous leadership. This required negotiation and cooperation with numerous governments and existing institutions, which sometimes led to compromises with the foundation’s goals and always meant relinquishing control of the funds it contributed.


After only a few years the foundation reevaluated this approach and turned largely to a program of grants for research, continuing its focus on medicine and public health but also supporting the physical, biological, and social sciences. After 1929 the distribution of small grants (typically for 1-3 year terms) to a variety of researchers allowed the foundation to seek out the most productive workers in a given field, and to develop a system of review and assessment that identified those to be given continued support. Since the beginning of the research grant program, the foundation’s continuing concern has been to select a few areas of knowledge in which to provide grant support. At intervals of ten to fifteen years there have been major evaluations and, sometimes, a reorientation of programs, and there has been a continual effort to maintain a regular assessment of individual grants.


Finally, the foundation has had to consider its strategy for maintaining its endowment. When its incorporation was under consideration by Congress, Rockefeller had agreed to a stipulation that after fifty years the foundation would be permitted to completely expend its funds, and although that proviso was not included in the state charter, it became foundation policy in the late 1940s to spend its capital at a rate that would close out its operations in fifteen to twenty years. 38 Later the more conservative policy of spending only the interest on endowment returned, with the full recognition that no substantial additions to the foundation’s endowment were forthcoming.


Richard Lyman, president of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1980 until 1988, notes that the foundation has a reputation of creating well-considered programs, systematically carried out over long periods, and staffed by experts. He thinks that regular reevaluation of such programs must be initiated by the president and trustees-“otherwise our future cannot be informed by our past as it should be,” Lyman states. Without such evaluation foundations cannot effectively perform their function, which Lyman describes as “providing the venture capital for the not-for-profit world.”39




In looking toward the future, the presidents of Spelman and Chicago and recent presidents of the Rockefeller University and the Rockefeller Foundation agree that the philanthropic world will be asked to provide more and newer forms of support in the coming years.40 Close association with the Rockefellers at various times has hampered fund raising for Spelman, Chicago, and the Rockefeller University.41 Spelman College, recipient in 1988 of a $20 million gift from comedian Bill Cosby, has wrestled with a new manifestation of this problem. “Before the Cosby gift,” notes Johnnetta Cole, “there were a whole lot of folk who really imagined that once a week whoever was the president went down to the train station and a great big bag of money from the Rockefellers was thrown off and the president grabbed the bag and brought it back. . . . Now folks say, ‘well, what the Rockefellers don’t give them they get from the Cosbys.’” On the other hand, as former Rockefeller University president Frederick Seitz points out, association with a well-known philanthropic family can open the doors to prospective contributors, as well.42


For each of these educational and research institutions, maintaining excellence is a particular area of concern.43 For Hanna Gray at Chicago, a major issue is the increasing costs that must be borne to acquire the scientific instruments necessary for maintaining excellence in instruction and scholarship. Richard Lyman notes that it may cost $500,000 to properly equip the laboratory of a newly appointed researcher. Of a different order is Spelman’s need to replace an entire science building designed for the laboratories of an earlier era.


Both Gray and Cole see the increasing programmatic focus of modern philanthropy and worry about the sources of general support for such undramatic needs as scholarships and faculty salaries. Modern philanthropy is willing to fund specific programs and special needs, but support for continuing general costs in education has become a source of concern to these education leaders, especially since studies indicate that colleges and universities are not receiving as much of the philanthropic dollar as in the past.44 “What worries me the most,” Cole reports, “is the possibility that so much attention will be directed to social problems that an institution like Spelman, which will not be readily associated with such problems, will be ignored. We cannot maintain the quality that we have attained without continued infusions from the philanthropic world.”


Gray hopes that philanthropy in the future will be less restrictive: “Support nowadays is almost never unrestricted, and I think that philanthropy is too intent on defining a program, defining the parameters of grants, and too little concerned with saying what are the broad objectives that we have to reach.” She is critical of the “nonsensical dichotomy” that has led some grantmakers to proclaim a willingness to invest in people, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to generally refuse to support bricks-and-mortar projects. “The measure ought to be whether one believes that the bricks and mortar have to do with people,” she argues, and the creation of the “kind of environment in which talent will flourish.”


Interestingly, both Gray and Cole find in their institutions missions that parallel the goals of philanthropy. “Philanthropy,” Cole argues, “must surely move constantly between the joy of helping those who are so deprived of what is necessary and the pleasure of giving to those who, when they receive, make a quantum leap in the world of quality.” Spelman shares the first goal of philanthropy, she continues, since it is engaged in the same kind of service to those in need and is working as an institution of committed individuals to deal with such social problems as illiteracy, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse. For Gray, the aim of philanthropy resembles that of a college campus:


“Philanthropic support is rather like the kind of support that a university environment should give to very good people-students, faculty-to do their very best work and to develop it in the best possible way. Mainly you find the best possible people who have a vision that matters and has some enduring meaning and give them support and freedom to realize that.”


Although updated and made in the context of recent developments, the statements of today’s leaders of institutions founded by John D. Rockefeller, Sr., share a sense of vision akin to his religious faith in the progress of humankind. Rockefeller believed that the goal of his educational philanthropy should be to create institutions of excellence aimed at the broadest service to humankind, institutions that would help develop and disseminate an ever-growing knowledge base that would serve as humankind’s universal heritage and that will continually help make life “more what we all wish it to be.”




1 Raymond B. Fosdick, Adventure in Giving: The Story of the General Education Board (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 8.


2 General Education Board Review and Final Report, 1902-1964 (New York: General Education Board, 1964), esp. Appendix 2; see also Fosdick, Adventure in Giving. On Rockefeller’s own education, see Allan Nevins, Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), vol. 1, pp. 5-6, 10.


3 See the charities index cards for the American Baptist Education Society in the John D. Rockefeller Papers (hereafter cited as JDR Papers), Financial Materials, Charities Index series, box 1, in the Rockefeller Family Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center (hereafter cited as RAC), North Tarrytown, New York.


4 John D. Rockefeller, Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1909: reprinted by Sleepy Hollow Press, 1984), p. 112.


5 For the most recent history of Spelman, see Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Jo Moore Stewart, Spelman: A Centennial Celebration 1881-1981 (Atlanta: Spelman College, 1981); for an overview of southern black education, see James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). Spelman College is a continuing chapter in Rockefeller philanthropic history: It is probably the institution with which the family has had the longest continuing relationship. From John D. Rockefeller’s first gift in 1882, the Rockefeller family has continued to play a significant role in the school’s life. Laurance Rockefeller’s wife, Mary, served on the board of trustees for more than twenty years (1946-1970), and their daughter, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Chasin, continues the family’s representation on the board.


6 The following history of Spelman is drawn from the-two histories of the school: Florence Matilda Read, The Story of Spelman College (Atlanta: Spelman College, 1961); and Guy-Sheftall and Stewart, Spelman.


7 Dr. Johnnetta Cole used this description in an address on November 4, 1988, during which she described a major gift to the school by Dr. William E. and Mrs. Camille Cosby. See Spelman Messenger 104 (Winter 1989): 12.


8 In February 1883 Rockefeller paid his building pledge and gave an additional $250 for “Miss Packard’s furniture.” See charities recording card #l for Spelman Seminary in box 7, Charities Index series, Financial Material, JDR Papers, RAC.


9 “All are anxious to keep the sexes separated,” Packard wrote to Henry Morehouse of the ABHMS. “This is to be women working for women. . . . . [WABHMS members] feel as we all must that to elevate the women is the only salvation of our country. To Christianize the mothers and purify the home is the solution of the greatest problem before the American people today. Napoleon once said, show me the mothers and I will tell you what the sons will be.” Her letter is quoted in the unpaginated section “Time Line” between pages 48 and 49 in Guy Sheftall and Stewart, Spelman.


10 Packard to Rockefeller, December 29, 1883, folder 233, box 30, JDR Papers, RAC.


11 Giles’s letter is quoted in Guy-Sheftall and Stewart, Spelman, p. 29.


12 Tapley is quoted in ibid,, p. 42. See also Read, The Story of Spelman College, pp. 190-93; and Lynn D. Gordon, “Race, Class, and the Bonds of Womanhood at Spelman Seminary, 1881-1923,” History of Higher Education Annual 9 (1989): 14, 20-21.


13 For statistics on Spelman’s enrollment in various departments, see the Spelman files in the General Education Board Archives, boxes 39-43, RAC. Mission training was phased out in 1912, the night school closed in 1920, and trade courses were ended in millinery in 1923 and in dressmaking, printing, and home economics in 1924-1925. See Frank P. Bachman, “Report on Spelman College,” October 17, 1925, folder 374, box 41, General Education Board Archives, RAC.


14 James Anderson attributes this change in black education to several factors, including student demands but especially the changing educational standards and requirements imposed by state certification boards in the professions and educational accreditation boards for colleges and universities. See Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, pp. 274-75; and Gordon, “Race, Class, and the Bonds of Womanhood at Spelman.”


15 See Arnett’s report, “Notes on Points Discussed at Conference Relative to Spelman College,” January 17-February 7, 1927, folder entitled “Spelman College, 1907-1933,” box 89, Educational Interests series, RG 2, Office of the Messrs Rockefeller, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC. His report of his conversation with outgoing president Tapley is most interesting in light of Spelman’s subsequent history. He notes that “the goal of complete support and control by the Negroes is to be the aim. We both felt that the next administration must be white, and that during that administration a definite plan be followed to have the colored people assume greater financial obligation and be given greater educational participation” (pp. 5-6). The next was Spelman’s last white president.


16 The question of an endowment for Spelman College is discussed in correspondence in the folder “Spelman College, 1891-1906,” box 89, Educational Interests series, RG 2, Office of the Messrs Rockefeller, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC.


17 John D. Rockefeller to Florence M. Read, April 8, 1931, folder entitled “Spelman College, 1907-1933,” box 89, Educational Interests series, RG 2 Office of the Messrs Rockefeller, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC. For the specifics of endowment pledges, see correspondence in the folder entitled “Re Liberalizing Gift to GEB, Mar. 23, 1906; March 11, 1930 Pledge,” box 90, Educational Interests series, RG 2 Office of the Messrs Rockefeller the Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC, especially Trevor Arnett to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., January 31, 1930; John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to Arnett, March 11, 1930; the undated “Memorandum: Pledge to Spelman College”; and Florence Read to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., March 16, 1934.


18 Guy-Sheftall and Stewart, Spelman; Spelman Messenger 104, no. 2; and Susan McHenry, “Spelman College Gets Its First ‘Sister President,’” Ms., October 1987, pp. 59-61, 98-99.


19 Interview with Dr. Johnnetta Cole, August 17, 1989.


20 Ibid.


21 See Allan Nevins, Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), vol. 2, pp. 156-96; John Enson Harr and Peter J. Johnson, The Rockefeller Century (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1988), pp. 13-16; Thomas W. Goodspeed, A History of the University of Chicago: The First Quarter Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1916); and Richard J. Storr, Harper’s University: The Beginnings (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966).


22 This account of the founding of the University of Chicago draws heavily on the works cited above in n. 21.


23 Harr and Johnson, The Rockefeller Century, p. 28.


24 Ibid., p. 28.


25 John D. Rockefeller to the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, December 13, 1910, quoted in Goodspeed, A History of the University of Chicago, p. 292.


26 Trevor Arnett, “University of Chicago: Conclusions,” stamped “Sep 16 1940,” folder 6843, box 657, series 1.4, GEB Archives, RAC, provides an analysis of the gifts by source and over time. A memo prepared by the Rockefeller family staff, “Gifts to the University of Chicago,” provides a breakdown of gifts to the university from various Rockefeller sources: John D. Rockefeller, $34.7 million; John D. Rockefeller, Jr., $5.8 million; the Rockefeller Foundation, $13.5 million (including $4.25 million from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial); the General Education Board, $24.9 million; the International Education Board, $3.2 million; and the Spelman Fund of New York, $1.49 million. See this memo, dated May 23, 1941, folder entitled “Gifts from JDR,” box 108, Educational Interests series, RG 2 Office of the Messrs Rockefeller, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC.


27 Arnett, “University of Chicago: Conclusions,” stamped “Sep 16 1940,” folder 6843, box 657, series 1.4, GEB Archives, RAC. These conclusions to a “voluminous” study by Arnett of the GEB’s relationship with the University of Chicago were circulated to GEB officers beginning on May 18, 1939. See the cover memo of that date filed with the conclusions. 28 Interview with Dr. Hanna Gray, August 2, 1989.


29 Quoted in Howard S. Berliner, A System of Scientific Medicine: Philanthropic Foundations in the Flexner Era (New York and London: Tavistock Publications, 1985), p. 63.


30 George W. Corner, A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 1901-1953 (New York: Rockefeller Institute Press, 1964), pp. 45-46; cf. Berliner, A System of Scientific Medicine, pp. 67, 70, who implies that this was an “error” but cites the board of directors as saying that the grants are important means of “maintain[ing] the interest of research workers in established institutions of learning” (p. 70).


31 Interview with Dr. Joshua Lederberg, President, the Rockefeller University, June 23, 1989.


32 Ibid.


33 Rockefeller, Random Reminiscences of Men and Events, p. 112. See also Raymond B. Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), p. 22.


34 Frederick T. Gates to John D. Rockefeller, June 3, 1905, folder 57, box 3, Gates Collection, RAC.


35 Trustees minutes, May 22, 1913, Rockefeller Foundation Archives, RAC.


36 Robert E. Kohler, “Science, Foundations, and American Universities in the 1920s,” Osiris, 2nd ser. 3 (1987): 140.


37 “War Work of the Rockefeller Foundation,” 1 March 1919, folder 567, box 57, series 100, RG 1.1, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC.


38 Harr and Johnson, The Rockefeller Century, p. 451.


39 Interview with Dr. Richard Lyman, August 16, 1989.


40 The Rockefeller University, Report of the President, 1980 & 1981 (New York: Rockefeller University, 1982), p. 6; interviews with Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Dr. Hanna Gray, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, and Dr. Richard Lyman.


41 This was a problem Rockefeller encountered early in his philanthropy. In his capacity as Rockefeller’s major philanthropic advisor, Frederick Gates often complained that other potential donors, and even institutional fundraisers themselves, tried to take advantage of Rockefeller’s association with certain institutions. He criticized the ABHMS during the early 1900s for not paying its agreed-upon share of Spelman’s support, assuming that the Rockefellers would contribute more, and urged the General Education Board to threaten to withhold from its annual appropriation to the ABHMS any additional sum required for Spelman. He also complained that Chicago’s administrators were less than vigilant in holding down costs because they believed that the Rockefellers’ sense of moral obligation to the school would prompt them to make up any deficits. See Gates’s comments as transcribed in “Report on Conference between Messrs F. T. Gates, T. W. Goodspeed, and H. A. Rust, with Reference to the University of Chicago,” February 10, 1897, especially pp. 13-14, folder “Examination of Budget 1897,” box 101, Educational Interests series, RG 2 Office of the Messrs Rockefeller, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC. His complaints regarding the ABHMS and Spelman are detailed in his letters to John D. Rockefeller, June 7, 1909, and June 9, 1909, folder “Spelman College, 1907 1933,” box 89, Educational Interests series, RG 2 Office of the Messrs Rockefeller, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC.


42 Interviews with Dr. Johnnetta Cole, August 17, 1989, and Frederick Seitz, July 25, 1989.


43 The remainder of this article draws on the interviews with Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Dr. Hanna Gray, Dr. Joshua Lederberg, and Dr. Richard Lyman, cited earlier.


44 See Ann Lowrey Bailey, "Schools and Colleges” article under the heading “United Way Contributions Up 6.9 Pet.; Schools and Colleges Suffer a Drop,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 2, 1989, pp. 1, 8-9; and Kristin A. Goss, “Charitable Donations Top $l00 Billion for the First Time, but Growth Slows,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 13, 1989, pp. 1, 10-l1.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 3, 1992, p. 536-555
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 260, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:09:58 PM

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