Rockefeller III Births the Population Council

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1952

When global population passed 2½ billion in the early 1950s (it is now more than 7 billion), John Rockefeller III was among those convinced that catastrophe was on the way. He believed his family foundation bore some of the responsibility for rising numbers—because its health programs had reduced death rates in poor countries. So he convened a panel of experts for advice on blunting population growth. They called attention to the cultural, religious, and political sensitivities that would complicate any intervention into matters of sex and fertility, and the Rockefeller Foundation refused to adopt “overpopulation” as an area of interest.

John III, however, was adamant. With a personal grant of $100,000 he founded a new group called the Population Council, and followed that soon after with a $1.25 million donation. Soon, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund joined the cause. Before long, the Ford Foundation pitched in $600,000, followed by a $1.4 million Ford grant later in the 1950s. (Ford continues to be a significant donor to the council today.) Eventually the Rockefeller Foundation itself became a major donor. Foundations like Mellon, Hewlett, Packard, and Gates became involved later, and the Population Council now operates in scores of countries, spending $87 million in 2014.

From its beginning, the Population Council was associated with eugenics. Its first president, Frederick Osborn, was a founding member of the American Eugenics Society. Eugenics and alarm about population growth were entwined for decades, and there has been no shortage of wealthy philanthropists willing to spend money to reduce births among poor families in other countries.

This topic has always generated controversy. In 1959, reacting to a proposal for U.S. government funding for fertility control in other countries, President Dwight Eisenhower declared that he “could not imagine anything more emphatically a subject that is not a proper political or governmental activity.” But by 1965 President Lyndon Johnson was asserting that “five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.”

Coercive measures controlling family size in China, India, and other countries led to protests and suspensions of international funding on several occasions. Even amid backlashes against eugenics, coercive fertility control, and population alarmism, donors ranging from the MacArthur and Scaife foundations to Ted Turner and Warren Buffett have made large donations to a cause they viewed as a crisis. And government agencies like the World Bank, United Nations, and the U.S. Agency for International Development have also been heavily committed to reducing births in foreign countries. Fully 69 percent of the Population Council’s $75 million of grant revenue in 2014 came from governments.

  • Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston) 1976
  • Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard University Press, 2008)