In 1940, an estimated $45 million was spent on biomedical research in the U.S., only $3 million of it from the federal government. World War II accelerated government health research, but as late as 1947 the entire budget for the National Institutes of Health was still only $8 million. Thus, the major force in funding biomedical research in the U.S., especially on the cutting edge, was private philanthropy. The most active foundation in this area was the John A. Hartford Foundation.
Brothers John and George Hartford created the behemoth A&P grocery chain, which became the largest retailer in the world. A&P was the first merchant to reach $1 billion in annual sales, which it hit in 1929. That very same year, John established the foundation that bears his name. After the brothers died in the 1950s, their combined contributions of A&P stock made the Hartford Foundation the fourth largest philanthropy in the country. Its trustees met and decided to focus their giving tightly on biomedical research, making the organization the largest supporter of clinical science in the U.S.
Between 1954 and 1979, the Hartford Foundation provided hospitals and medical centers with $175 million of research grants, equipment, and fellowships for scientists, catalyzing many of the era’s important advances in medicine. During its peak spending years of 1962 to 1972, the foundation funded more biomedical research than all other major foundations combined. The products of this investment included kidney dialysis, successful kidney transplantation (and then leaps in other types of organ transplants), major improvements in understanding of immunology, development of the artificial heart, cryogenic surgery, many advances in cancer research, the groundwork for microneurosurgery, and more.
In 1954, Hartford gave Boston’s Brigham Hospital a $300,000 grant that directly supported some of the world’s first successful kidney transplants. These operations created worldwide attention and led to another $200,000 of Hartford support over the next few years. The foundation simultaneously underwrote pioneering work on organ transplantation by other researchers. Crucial investigations in immunology, aiming to avoid rejection of transplanted tissues, were also funded. In addition, the Hartford Foundation underwrote creation of professional organizations like the International Congress of Nephrology, the American Society of Nephrology, and the Transplantation Society.
Making the kidney-dialysis machine practical and affordable was another product of concentrated Hartford Foundation funding. The “artificial kidney” that existed in the beginning of the 1950s was huge, expensive, and destructive of patient blood vessels. In 1961, Hartford provided $250,000 to develop more efficient dialysis machines for use in the first outpatient clinic, in Seattle. A second center was subsequently created in Spokane, Washington. On January 8, 1962, the world’s first out-of-hospital dialysis center treated its inaugural patient.
Other renal experts in Cleveland and Boston were simultaneously supported with six- and seven-figure grants from Hartford. The result? For the first time, the one-out-of-every-100,000 Americans whose kidneys had failed gained the prospect of escaping their death sentence..
- History of Hartford Foundation biomedical research by Judith Jacobson, The Greatest Good (Chester Jones Foundation, 1984), jhartfound.org/learning-center/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/GG_Intro.pdf
- Philanthropy magazine, May/June 2004 issue, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/frontiers_of_science