John Rockefeller Sr.

After starting life in humble circumstances, John Rockefeller came to dominate the burgeoning petroleum industry by the time he was 40 years old. He became the richest man of his time, and indeed has a good claim to perhaps being the richest self-made man who ever lived. At its peak, Rockefeller’s net worth was around 1.5 percent of the country’s total annual economic output—the equivalent of about $280 billion today, or about three times the wealth controlled by Bill Gates.

He was equally distinguished as a philanthropist. A natural businessman with a strong moral sense and intense religious convictions, he dedicated unprecedented resources to charity. Within his lifetime, Rockefeller helped launch the field of biomedical research, funding scientific investigations that resulted in vaccines for things like meningitis and yellow fever. He revolutionized medical training in the United States, and built China’s first proper medical school. He championed the cause of public sanitation, creating schools of public health at Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and helped lead major international public-health efforts against hookworm, malaria, yellow fever, and other maladies. He vigorously promoted the cause of education nationwide, without distinction of sex, race, or creed. He created the University of Chicago, virtually from scratch, and within a decade turned it into one of the world’s leading universities.

Born in upstate New York in 1839, Rockefeller was the son of a strait-laced, deeply devout Baptist mother and a boisterous, fun-loving father who called himself a travelling salesman but was really a flimflam man. (Amidst his many long business trips, Rockefeller’s father would eventually contract a bigamous second marriage and have a second family while still returning periodically to his first.) The young Rockefeller, serious and somewhat humorless by nature, was much more influenced by his mother. A lifelong adherent of the northern Baptist church, he neither drank nor smoked.

As a boy, his family moved frequently. In 1853 they settled in Strongsville, Ohio, a suburb of rapidly expanding Cleveland. Rockefeller attended a local high school and took a 10-week course in bookkeeping. At age 16 he got his first job, as a bookkeeper at a brokerage of fresh produce. From the beginning, he gave six percent of his salary (which at first was a mere 50¢ per day) to charity. He was soon tithing to the Baptist church.

In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well, in northwest Pennsylvania, and one of the world’s greatest industries was born. That year Rockefeller and a partner opened a brokerage of their own, Rockefeller and Clark, that traded not only produce but petroleum products as well. Cleveland, with its proximity to the Pennsylvania oil fields and its excellent transportation network, quickly became the center of petroleum refining. In 1863, Rockefeller and partners opened their own refinery.

In 1865 Rockefeller bought out his partners and established a new firm with the chemist Samuel Andrews. Needing capital, he approached Stephen Harkness, who invested $100,000 and became a silent partner in the firm, requiring that his relative, Henry Flagler, be taken in as a partner as well to oversee the Harkness interests. Flagler proved an inspired choice, with organizational and creative business skills that neatly matched Rockefeller’s careful money management.

In 1870, Flagler convinced Rockefeller to transform the partnership of Rockefeller, Andrews, and Flagler into a corporation named Standard Oil. Standard Oil expanded rapidly, both horizontally by buying up other oil refining companies, and vertically by acquiring oil wells and transportation routes and selling products at the retail level. Standard Oil pursued a monopoly position, pursuing many techniques—such as secret rebates from railroads and predatory pricing—that are today illegal but were not then. It also invented the trust form of organization in order to circumvent out-of-date incorporation laws. It paid a fair price for the companies it wanted to acquire, often paying in Standard Oil stock and taking in valued executives. By 1880, Standard Oil controlled 90 percent of the oil business in America.

Rockefeller had a clear conscience about how he won his fortune. “God gave me the money,” he often said. Believing that, he felt a profound obligation to put the money to good use. By the early 1880s, he was receiving thousands of letters a month asking for help. Rockefeller regularly gathered his family after breakfast to review the merits of the petitions. “Four-fifths of these letters,” Rockefeller noted years later, were “requests of money for personal use, with no other title to consideration than that the writer would be gratified to have it.”

In these first years of large-scale philanthropy, Rockefeller favored a few causes close to his heart. He was the single-most generous donor to the northern Baptist conventions, and he underwrote the work of missionaries and relief workers at home and abroad. He also took a deep interest in higher education for African Americans. In 1882, he began a series of gifts to the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, a struggling school for African-American women. As Rockefeller’s contributions grew, the school took the maiden name of Rockefeller’s wife: Spellman. Similar gifts were soon directed to two other black colleges—the Tuskegee Institute and Morehouse College.

“About the year 1890 I was still following the haphazard fashion of giving here and there as appeals presented themselves. I investigated as I could, and worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown,” Rockefeller noted in his 1909 memoirs. “There was then forced upon me the necessity to organize and plan this department of our daily tasks on as distinct lines of progress as we did with our business affairs.” It marked an important turning point in his career as a philanthropist.

Rockefeller made his fortune through canny consolidation, careful cost management, and economies of scale. Those instincts were reflected time and again in his charitable giving. Rather than make thousands of small, scattershot contributions, he preferred to make large donations to institutions that he believed had great promise. “The best philanthropy,” he wrote, “is constantly in search of finalities—a search for a cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

Higher education was the first major beneficiary of Rockefeller’s more focused philanthropic efforts. A project of lifelong interest to him was the creation of a distinguished Baptist university. Rockefeller considered several options before pairing with William Rainey Harper to establish the University of Chicago. In 1890, he made his first contribution—for $600,000—to the school. Over the rest of his life, he would give it a total of $35 million, making it possible for the upstart school to instantly rank among the world’s leading institutions of higher learning. Rockefeller insisted that his name not be used anywhere on campus, even rejecting an image of a lamp on the university seal, lest it be taken as a suggestion of the influence of Standard Oil. The University of Chicago, he later said, was “the best investment I ever made.”

At the urging of Frederick T. Gates, perhaps his most trusted philanthropic adviser, Rockefeller became increasingly devoted to medical research. In 1901, he funded the Rockefeller Medical Research Institute in New York City. Modeled on the Institut Pasteur in France and the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, it was the country’s first biomedical institute, soon on a par with its European models. The results were dramatic. Within a decade, it created a vaccine for cerebrospinal meningitis and had supported the work of America’s first winner of a Nobel Prize in medicine. Today, known as the Rockefeller University, it is one of the leading biomedical research centers in the world. Twenty-four Nobel Prize winners have served on its faculty.

Like many wealthy industrialists of his era, Rockefeller was scandalized by the poverty and deprivation that still afflicted the American South nearly half a century after the conclusion of the Civil War. He created the General Education Board in 1902, charging it with a ranging mission that included improving rural education for both whites and blacks, modernizing agricultural practices, and improving public health, primarily through efforts to eradicate hookworm, which debilitated many Southerners and dragged down productivity of all sorts. The General Education Board helped establish hundreds of public high schools throughout the South, promoted institutions of higher education, and supported teacher-training efforts for African Americans.

Rockefeller’s work to eliminate hookworm was related to a broader effort to improve public health generally. Starting in 1913, the campaign against hookworm was exported globally. It was soon followed by similar efforts against malaria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and typhus, all under the auspices of the Rockefeller-funded International Health Commission. Rockefeller created the first school of public health and hygiene at Johns Hopkins University in 1918, which he then duplicated at Harvard in 1921. In all, he spent $25 million introducing public health programs at scores of universities across the globe. Rockefeller took a special interest in China, (second only to the United States as a destination for his funding), and the China Medical Board he created can be credited with first introducing the country to modern medical practices.

Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, Rockefeller was thinking seriously about founding a perpetual grantmaking foundation. By 1909, he had given away $158 million of personal funds to various causes. That year he donated 73,000 shares of Standard Oil, worth $50 million, as a first installment to establish what would become the Rockefeller Foundation. It was not the first such foundation, but it quickly became the largest. It was chartered by New York State in 1913 with a mission “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”

The benefactions of the Rockefeller Foundation have been many and varied, from funding the research that led to the yellow-fever vaccine, to the Montreal Neurological Institute, to a new building that holds five million books at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The foundation was a pioneer funder of the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased agricultural yields across the developing world, and may have saved as many as one billion lives. For decades, the Rockefeller Foundation distributed more foreign aid than the entire U.S. government.

As impressive as the legacy of the Rockefeller Foundation is, however, it is not clear that it has yet caught up with the accomplishments of its founding donor. John D. Rockefeller gave away $540 million (unadjusted for inflation) before his death in 1937 at the age of 97. With that money, he created two of the world’s greatest research universities, helped pull the American South out of chronic poverty, educated legions of African Americans, jumpstarted medical research, and dramatically improved health around the globe. It is not surprising that his biographer Ron Chernow concluded that Rockefeller “must rank as the greatest philanthropist in American history.”

~ John Steele Gordon


Further reading:

  • Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (Random House, 1998)
  • Raymond Fosdick, The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation (Transaction Publishers, 1989)
  • John D. Rockefeller, Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (Doubleday, 1909)

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