Rockefeller’s Medical Philanthropy Sprouts 61 Nobel Prizes

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1913

John Rockefeller, the son of an itinerant seller of folk medicines, started pouring large sums from his Standard Oil fortune into medical research and treatment long before he founded the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (which grew into Rockefeller University—see 1901 entry) was America’s first research institution in support of experimental medicine. After he set up his foundation, Rockefeller’s money began to flow into many other institutions working to advance human health. Collectively, the Rockefeller investments in health gave perhaps the largest jolt to lifesaving and health improvement that any single source has ever exerted.

In 2013, Philanthropy magazine surveyed historical records and discovered that an astonishing 47 Nobel Prize winners working in the fields of medicine, biochemistry, and health received significant professional support from Rockefeller philanthropy before they earned their Nobels. Another 14 Nobel laureates were supported by a Rockefeller-founded entity some time after their award, allowing them to expand their research or to mentor a new generation of scientists.

The influence of Rockefeller funding peaked in the 1960s and ’70s then declined. There were three Rockefeller-linked Nobelists up to 1929, then six in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, and seven more in the ’50s. There were 11 Rockefeller-related laureates in the 1960s and 13 more in the 1970s. Then came five in the ’80s, four in the ’90s, and three in the 2000s, with two in the 2010s as of this writing.

Just a few of the breakthroughs influenced by Rockefeller giving: Discovery of human blood types. Separate discoveries of Vitamin C and Vitamin K. Studies on polio that led to a vaccine. Evidence that viruses could cause cancer. Explanations of the working of the eye. Understanding the genetic structure of viruses. Mapping the chemistry of antibodies. Findings on RNA structure that paved the way for the biotech revolution. Discovering how retroviruses attack cells. And much more.