The Rockefeller Legacy

On the centenary of the Rockefeller Foundation, it's worth remembering what its founder accomplished in his own 97 years.

John D. Rockefeller never forgot September 26, 1855. He had spent the previous six weeks searching for work, methodically pacing the streets of Cleveland, presenting himself at one business after another. On that Wednesday morning, the 16-year-old Rockefeller marched into the offices of Hewitt and Tuttle, commission merchants and produce shippers a block from the Cuyahoga River. The firm needed a new bookkeeping clerk. After a brief interview, Isaac Hewitt announced, “We’ll give you a chance.”

Every year thereafter, Rockefeller celebrated September 26 as “Job Day.” It was, he believed, the day his adult life began, the moment that the enormous ambitions of his boyhood could begin to take flight. But it represented more than that. It marked the beginning of his ability to productively contribute to society—first by making money, and again by giving it away. Taking the long view, it could even be called the day the Rockefeller Foundation was launched.

A few days after he landed that first, formative job, Rockefeller decided to adopt a strict accounting of his own affairs. For 10¢, he bought a red-covered notebook, which he later dubbed “Ledger A.” In it, he recorded his every transaction. It was one of his most highly prized possessions. Fifty years later, his voice choking with emotion, he shared it with a Bible class he taught at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. It was a rare privilege. It was usually locked in a safe-deposit box.

Ledger A reveals the toils of a frugal and conscientious young man. Over half of his rather meager salary went to lodging and food. He spent virtually nothing on personal amusements, very little on clothing, and the bare minimum on food. The one line item on which he never skimped, however, was his charitable giving. “When I was only making a dollar a day,” Rockefeller later recalled, “I was giving [away] five, ten, or twenty-five cents.”

His first recorded gifts were relatively modest and tended to flow toward Baptist causes: the Five Points mission, the Mite society, foreign missions, “a poor woman in the church,” and so forth. As his resources grew, he increased his charitable giving. In 1857, he recorded $28.37 in donations. Two years later, he gave away $72.22—including funds to purchase and liberate the enslaved wife of an African American in Cincinnati. During the Civil War, Rockefeller broadened the scope of his giving. He made contributions to a Catholic orphanage, a nonsectarian industrial school, and a Swedish mission in Illinois. By 1865, he was giving away more than $1,000 annually.


The Rockefeller Touch

Rockefeller never relinquished the habit of philanthropy. While his career was beginning its meteoric rise, he enjoyed performing quiet, personal acts of charity. Even during church services, records biographer Ron Chernow, “his eyes darted around the room as he selected needy recipients of his charity. Taking small envelopes from his pocket, he slipped in some money, wrote the congregants’ names on top, then unobtrusively pressed these gifts into their palms as they shook hands and said goodbye.”

In those first years after the Civil War, Rockefeller tended to support religious causes, but there was no particular focus to his philanthropy. He tried to give all comers a fair hearing. At breakfast, he made it a habit to say grace and then open review of requests for charity with his family, asking his children to further investigate promising appeals.

The recipients of his generosity ranged considerably. He supported a homeless shelter in Manhattan’s Bowery, the A. C. Bacone Indian University in what is today Oklahoma, and the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary (later Spelman College, after his wife’s maiden name). He underwrote the ministries of prominent Baptist pastors as well as itinerant black preachers.

As his wealth grew, so did the appeals for his assistance. By the 1880s, the volume had become staggering. “Neither in the privacy of his home,” remembered one close associate, “nor at table, nor in the aisles of his church, nor on his trips to and from his office, nor during his business hours, nor anywhere else, was Mr. Rockefeller secure from insistent appeals.”

By the time Rockefeller turned 50, decades of exertion—from both work and philanthropy—had taken their toll. He complained of chronic exhaustion and digestive difficulties. His slender frame dropped weight; he began seeking treatments for a liver ailment. Early in 1890, an unspecified illness kept him away from work for several months. His family feared a nervous breakdown was imminent.

In 1891, under doctor’s orders, Rockefeller spent eight months recuperating at the family’s summer home near Lake Erie. As his health was gradually restored, he decided to retire from the active management of his affairs. From a young age, he had set two goals for himself: to make $100,000 and to live to be 100. By his 50th birthday, he had accomplished his first goal more than a thousand times over. If he was going to achieve the second, he came to believe, he would have to change how he went about both business and philanthropy.

His visits to Standard Oil’s headquarters at 26 Broadway started becoming much less frequent. On the occasions when he did go to work, he insisted on taking a mid-afternoon nap. At home, too, Rockefeller passed his days in a calm, unhurried routine. To ease digestion, he let hot food cool on the plate, and then carefully chewed every mouthful at least 10 times before swallowing. By 1897, he stopped going into the office altogether. Two years later, he played his first game of golf.

The Retiring Mr. Rockefeller

From the mid-1890s until his death in 1937, Rockefeller appeared to be equally withdrawn from both business and philanthropy. He stopped drawing a salary from Standard Oil and hired a 38-year-old assistant—Frederick T. Gates, the secretary of the American Baptist Education Society—to manage his charitable giving. A number of biographers have concluded that he disengaged from his charitable giving, having delegated all responsibility to Gates and, later, his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Certainly his deputies had a great deal of influence over the direction of the family’s giving. But Rockefeller himself was very much in control.

“In all his activities, business and philanthropic,” writes historian Waldemar Nielsen, Rockefeller “was attentive, methodical, and decisive. It was he who finally approved every major project, its funding, and the selection of the trustees and key individuals who ran it. He was the principal, and they were his agents; recognition for what was achieved should, in fairness, be distributed accordingly.” And what Rockefeller achieved in his retirement was truly remarkable. Almost all of his greatest philanthropic achievements came about after he retired.

Throughout the 1880s, he became increasingly enthralled by the idea of a signature investment: the creation of an internationally acclaimed Baptist university. Working with representatives from the denomination, he carefully weighed the merits of locating the school in New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C. In May 1889, Rockefeller committed his first gift—$600,000—to what was soon named the University of Chicago.

From that moment, the progress of the university shot forward with lightning speed. Rockefeller had hoped to establish a small college, first, then slowly carefully build it into a university. He entrusted the project to a brilliant 34-year-old biblical scholar named William Rainey Harper, who quietly nurtured much greater ambitions.

Harper assumed the presidency in February 1891; 18 months later, the university convened its first classes. Harper pushed Henry Ives Cobb, one of Chicago’s most distinguished architects, to complete 10 major buildings in two years. He raided faculties around the globe, offering scholars reduced teaching loads, greater flexibility, and exceptionally generous salaries. The first faculty convocation seated 120 professors, all of whom were distinguished in their fields and eight of whom were former college presidents.

Harper’s profligate spending scandalized the more cautious Rockefeller. (Indeed, a major cause of the oilman’s health problems was the vertiginous cost of funding the new school.) By the time Rockefeller made his last major gift to the school—$10 million, given in December 1910—he had contributed some $35 million to the enterprise. But its success was immediate and unmistakable. Within a few years of its opening, the University of Chicago was regarded as one of the world’s preeminent institutions of higher learning, a distinction it has held ever since. 

Rockefeller’s next great philanthropic achievement was in the uncharted territory of medical research. In 1897, Gates approached Rockefeller with a bold proposition: to launch a medical clinic, more laboratory than hospital, in order to study the cause and cure of diseases. The idea was not unprecedented—the Pasteur Institute in Paris (founded in 1888) and the Koch Institute in Berlin (1891) had similar missions—but it struck many contemporary Americans as fanciful. “The proposal encountered skepticism in the medical community,” notes biographer Ron Chernow. “It seemed rash, even quixotic, to pay grown men to daydream and come up with useful discoveries.”


Rockefeller mulled the proposal for several years. In June 1901, he finally agreed to fund the creation of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (RIMR). He intended to keep the project on a tight leash, initially pledging only $200,000 for the first 10 years of its operations. Under the leadership of Simon Flexner, the institute quickly assembled a team of brilliant researchers and scored a series of quick victories. In RIMR’s first years, Hideyo Noguchi conducted path-breaking work on the syphilis microbe, Peyton Rous demonstrated a viral cause for cancer, and Flexner himself developed a powerful new anti-meningitis serum.

RIMR was an indispensable force in launching the field of biomedical research. Rockefeller soon realized its importance, and steadily increased his support, ultimately contributing more than $60 million. With characteristic reserve, he visited RIMR exactly once, grudgingly, at his son’s insistence. In all, RIMR (since 1965, Rockefeller University) has advanced the work of dozens of Nobel Prize winners in the life sciences. (Please see “Rockefeller’s Other Pipeline.”) When the federal government began systematically supporting basic research in 1950, it patterned the National Science Foundation on the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

Foundations of Rockefeller Philanthropy

At the urging of his son, Rockefeller next undertook a major effort to improve the health, education, and welfare of the states of the former Confederacy, many of which were still suffering from the devastation of the Civil War. In February 1902, Senior endowed the General Education Board (GEB) with $1 million. Its original mission was to advance the cause of education, but it soon expanded its work into agricultural improvement and public health. By the time it made its last appropriation in 1964, the GEB had distributed more than $180 million.

Junior had originally hoped to name the organization the “Negro Education Board” and restrict its funding to African Americans. Warned off the project by Southern politicians, he decided to focus instead on public education for all students, helping local communities plan, staff, and secure public funding for high schools. (At the same time, both father and son also used the GEB as an instrument for making large donations to higher education, contributing some $42 million to colleges and universities nationwide.) By one estimate, the GEB played a critical role in the creation of more than 800 high schools throughout the American South.

If those high schools were to be sustainable, Rockefeller knew, there would have to be an economically productive tax base to fund them. As public education systems improved—for white students, at least—the GEB began a major push to teach farmers about modern agricultural methods. Working closely with the Department of Agriculture, the GEB taught hundreds of thousands of sodbusters how to increase their crop yields. Encouraged by the success of its agricultural program, the GEB started another public awareness campaign in 1909. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission was directed specifically against hookworm, a parasite that debilitates individuals and retards economic growth. Within five years of its founding, the commission had vastly increased public awareness of how to prevent hookworm-related illnesses—and cured nearly 500,000 people.

In 1913, Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Foundation, in perpetuity, with a gift of $35 million, followed a year later by a gift of $65 million. By that point, he had been a thoughtful donor for nearly 60 years, and some of his greatest philanthropic accomplishments were behind him. The foundation represented a new, institutional, chapter. From the beginning, the Rockefeller Foundation had a broad mandate: “to advance the well-being of mankind.” Standard Oil was by then long established as a multinational corporation, and Rockefeller thought it fitting that the scope of his foundation should likewise be global.

The first initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation was to expand the scope of the sanitary commission, taking its public health campaigns overseas. It created the International Health Commission, which led massive overseas public health efforts—first against hookworm, later against malaria, typhus, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis. Those on-the-ground efforts were paired with research and educational initiatives, most notably the creation of dozens of graduate schools of public health. Starting in 1918 at Johns Hopkins, the foundation spent some $25 million over two decades building up schools of public health in 21 cities worldwide, from Toronto to Tokyo and Stockholm to São Paulo.

The strategy achieved its most significant victory against yellow fever. For decades, the foundation worked steadily against what was called the “terror of the western hemisphere.” Starting in 1914, the foundation adopted a dual-prong approach to combating yellow fever: suppressing mosquito populations while simultaneously working to develop a vaccine. About two years before Rockefeller’s death, a foundation-supported immunologist named Max Theiler (later a Nobel laureate) announced the development of a vaccine for yellow fever.

In short order, the Rockefeller Foundation also made enormous strides advancing medical education. The effort originated in the GEB, after Gates read a study by Abraham Flexner (brother of Simon Flexner, the head of RIMR) on the gross inadequacy of American medical education. Gates urged Rockefeller to act. First through the GEB and later through the foundation, Rockefeller offered support for any medical school that agreed to modernize curriculum and facilities—an offer that eventually led to $78 million in funding.

Keying off those successes, the foundation led the effort to open China’s first proper medical school. In 1917, the Peking Union Medical College opened its doors, introducing western medicine to China. The Rockefeller Foundation soon established a program for overseas medical education, with grants to schools in Belgium, Brazil, England, France, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Among the many ironies of the Rockefeller legacy is the fact that the son of an itinerant folk-medicine salesman became humanity’s greatest benefactor of medical education, public health, and biomedical research.

Taking Chances

During the 25 years its founder was still alive, the Rockefeller Foundation launched a number of other notable projects. At the close of the Great War, it chartered its own ships and delivered more than $22 million in relief aid to war-torn Belgium, Serbia, and Armenia. During the 1920s, it funded the archaeological excavation of the Athenian agora; in the 1930s, it helped remove more than 300 Jewish scientists and researchers from Nazi Germany.

Rockefeller nearly made it to his 100th birthday. Six weeks before he was to turn 98, he passed away. His charitable giving has continued for generations after his death, and his resources still work to promote the well-being of mankind. But the institutions he created have enjoyed nothing like the burst of philanthropic accomplishment that flowered during his lifetime.

All of the philanthropic efforts were of a piece with Rockefeller’s lifelong habits. Over the course of his 97 years, Rockefeller gave away some $540 million. By many accounts, he was history’s richest self-made man. He was also arguably humanity’s most accomplished philanthropist. All of which Rockefeller would have traced back to a Wednesday morning in late September 1855, when he entered an office on Merwin Street, not far from the Cuyahoga River, asking for a job, and an older gentleman declared, “We’ll give you a chance.”

Christopher Levenick is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy.

Roundtable Roundup

Get the latest news and analysis from Philanthropy Roundtable. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Roundtable Roundup.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.