In 1901, John Rockefeller founded the first biomedical research institute in the United States. Although he discussed the idea for three years with his scientific adviser, Frederick Gates, it was the death of his three-year-old grandson from scarlet fever that jolted Rockefeller into action. At the time, infectious diseases like tuberculosis, diphtheria, and typhoid posed great threats to human health, and scarcely any organized research was under way to fight back.
Rockefeller initially committed $200,000 over ten years to construct the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, then added many millions more over the coming years. The organization, which was renamed Rockefeller University in 1965, produced some of the most important medical discoveries in history, including establishing that DNA is the chemical basis of heredity; discovering blood groups; finding new ways to freeze blood (which led to the creation of the first blood bank); explaining the structure of antibodies; Peyton Rous’s discovery that cancer can be caused by a virus; proving the connection between cholesterol and heart disease; and so forth.
Many lifesaving drugs and therapies emerged from Rockefeller’s walls, for instance: Simon Flexner’s anti-meningitis serum; Hideyo Noguchi’s treatments for syphilis and yellow fever; Louis Pearce’s invention of drugs to treat African sleeping sickness; the use of methadone to manage heroin addiction; and developing anti-AIDS “cocktail” drugs. Fully 24 scientists associated with the institution have received the Nobel Prize, and 20 have been awarded the National Medal of Science. Considered one of the best research centers in the world, Rockefeller University has served as a model for many medical-research facilities elsewhere.
The organization has attracted support from many benefactors beyond its founder, right up to the current day. The Heilbrunn family, for instance, first became interested in the university’s diabetes research, then supported cancer investigations, cellular research, and eventually a center for research nursing. New York City’s Starr Foundation is another philanthropic entity that has donated hundreds of millions of dollars since 1992 to support RU’s biomedical innovations.
- Duke University case study, cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/descriptive/rockefeller_university.pdf
- Rockefeller University history, rockefeller.edu/about/history