Rockefeller Pioneers Public Health in Foreign Lands

  • Overseas
  • 1913

The Rockefeller Foundation was at the center of the global effort to control diseases in the first half of the twentieth century. That was its very goal when the foundation established the International Health Commission—the first philanthropic organization dedicated to that cause—with a $25,000 gift in 1913. The smashing success of Rockefeller’s initiative to control hookworm in the American South had encouraged the foundation trustees to extend new health efforts beyond the borders of the U.S. Many of the structures and procedures that worked against hookworm were copied for the IHC. In this fashion, Rockefeller created many of the practices and protocols that became the new discipline of “public health.”

Hookworm was a major cause of high mortality among blacks in the West Indies, so Rockefeller’s trustees directed many of their first international grants to the Caribbean and Latin America. Throughout, the intention was to train and equip medical professionals in each country so they could sustain public-health improvements after the foundation departed. The international hookworm program quickly began to succeed as its U.S. predecessor had, so the commission next initiated campaigns against deadly yellow fever in 1914, and malaria (“the heaviest handicap on the welfare and economic efficiency of the human race”) in 1915. The board used pilot projects against both diseases in the U.S. to inform its treatment and research agendas overseas.

All three of these initial programs made great strides in meliorating cruel epidemics. In time, the entity eventually renamed as the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation was operating in more than 80 foreign countries. Rockefeller thereby became hugely influential on the ways that world health plagues were attacked in the future.