David Koch was a prominent American business executive and billionaire philanthropist. Active in politics all his life, he was best-known in the public eye for contributing to libertarian and conservative policy organizations and political networks. Koch actually gave far more money, though, to his favored causes of medical research, education, and cultural organizations.
As executive vice president at Koch Industries, the family business he joined in 1970, David worked closely with his older brother Charles to build the firm into an industrial conglomerate. It became the second-largest privately owned company in the United States, with annual revenues of over $100 billion. That made it bigger than corporate giants like Boeing, Microsoft, Bank of America, and Home Depot.
David Koch was born in 1940 in Wichita, Kansas, to Fred and Mary Koch. Mary was the outgoing, genial daughter of a prominent Wichita doctor. Fred was a petroleum engineer in the classic Great Plains up-by-your-bootstraps mold. He developed a novel petroleum cracking method that had great value in refining oil into gasoline. His innovation had to be defended, however, in endless patent litigation. (Fred won every lawsuit except for one, in which the judge was later found to have been bribed.) Fred took his technology all around the world, including to the Soviet Union, where he built 15 refineries in the late 1920s.
Fred Koch’s experience with the American plaintiffs’ bar and Stalin’s Soviet regime left him hardened against both trial lawyers and Communists, chastenings that he shared with his four sons. Determined that his offspring not grow up as “country club bums” he raised them to work hard. Starting at age nine, the boys spent their summers at the family’s ranch in blistering western Kansas, where they baled hay and dug post holes. When he was 15, David spent a summer digging pipeline trenches in southwestern Oklahoma. “It was brutally hot and dry,” he recalled. “You couldn’t even get a spade in the ground.”
Following in the footsteps of his father and older brother, David headed off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for an engineering education. The rangy six-and-a-half-footer also excelled at college basketball. The intense competitor led his team from an embarrassing 1-15 sophomore season to a 17-4 record during his senior year, when he was captain. Koch left the school as MIT’s all-time scoring leader, and his career scoring average of 21 points per game still ranks second in MIT hoops history.
After adding an MIT master’s degree to his undergraduate education, Koch began his career as an engineer, working for firms that sometimes competed with his family’s business. He lived in New York City, where he would stay for the next half century. He enjoyed nightlife, was equipped with a good sense of humor and a hearty laugh, and gained a reputation as a ladies’ man. Ballet became one avocational interest. “It has beautiful women, fantastic music, great athleticism, and great scenery,” he would say. “What’s not to like?”
In 1967, Fred Koch died of a massive heart attack while duck hunting in Utah, just moments after bringing down a mallard. Charles, who had been working for his father for several years, took over the company. David followed Charles into the family business three years later and remained with it for the rest of his life. By 1979, he was CEO of the chemical technology subsidiary of Koch Industries, a massive business that produces raw materials and supports oil and gas processing.
It was during the 1970s that Koch became active in the libertarian movement. Acquainted with the work of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman during college (when he threw an anti-Fidel Castro frat party, complete with an effigy of the Cuban dictator), he read more deeply in the ideas of liberty and became, together with Charles, “the biggest source of funding for libertarian causes in the 1970s and beyond,” according to historian Brian Doherty.
In 1977, David and Charles established the Cato Institute, which grew into one of the leading public-policy and free-market research organization in the U.S. The brothers were heavily involved in that expansion, and provided a high degree of donor accountability at the think tank. (“If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure that they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” David told Doherty. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things that we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.”)
In what was then a tiny libertarian movement, Koch also got connected with electoral politics. He was impressed by the way Roger MacBride, the 1976 Libertarian Party nominee for U.S. President, introduced ideas of liberty into the election discourse. “He wanted less government and taxes, and was talking about repealing all these victimless crime laws that had accumulated on the books.” In 1980, the Libertarian Party nominated California lawyer Ed Clark as their Presidential candidate, and put David Koch in their Vice President slot. Koch’s money allowed a more active campaign, and their L.P. ticket won 1.1 percent of the vote, a percentage unmatched by any Libertarian campaign until 2016.
Within newly created and existing policy organizations on the right, Koch promoted a mixture of libertarian economic views and individual freedoms. Neither he nor his brother were the one-dimensional givers that their many attackers on the left portrayed. Their joint projects included prison reform, huge gifts for African-American colleges, and defense of minority workers entangled in onerous occupational and small-businesses licensing regulations.
In 1984, David and Charles set up various 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4) organizations, leading eventually to major funding for their umbrella group Americans for Prosperity. This organizing helped fuel the Tea Party movement of the late 2000s that helped Republicans retake both houses of Congress by 2014.
Beyond their personal philanthropy, Charles and David Koch were very important in organizing other givers to support liberty-oriented causes and candidates. Early in the 2000s, they launched the Koch Seminar program, which hosts biennial retreats where major donors learn about the latest and best opportunities to support limited government and personal freedom. In a typical gathering, the seminar (now called Stand Together) convenes about 500 donors who contribute at least $100,000 per year to movement organizations. Givers compare notes, find common causes, and make support pledges.
Meanwhile the expanding success of Koch Industries made David extremely wealthy. In 1983 the other two Koch brothers, Frederick and Bill, sold their shares in the company to Charles and David for $1.1 billion, giving the two remaining brothers ownership of more than 80 percent of the firm. At David’s death, he and his brother each had a net worth of over $50 billion.
As his fortune ballooned, David became an active philanthropist in many areas. The giving he enjoyed most was for arts and culture. A lover of the New York City Ballet from his earliest days in the city, in 2008 he donated $100 million to renovate the theater at Lincoln Center in which the ballet performs. He was also a major patron of American Ballet Theatre. He gave large gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And he was the lead funder of front-line exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. This included the largest gift yet made to the Smithsonian, $35 million to remake its hall of fossils. The science lover was also a long-time supporter of the PBS natural-history program Nova.
But it was medical care that represented the largest portion of David Koch’s charitable giving (which totaled at least one-and-a-half billion dollars). In particular, cancer research became a center of his philanthropy. He joined his first medical board in the mid-1980s—New York University’s hospital, followed by the board of New York–Presbyterian Hospital. Eventually, he served on a dozen different hospital boards. Two events in the early 1990s increased his focus on medical gifts.
The first was an airplane crash. A Boeing 737 was landing at Los Angeles International Airport when an air-traffic controller directed a commuter plane onto the same runway. The larger jet could not stop in time and crushed the commuter plane in an enormous fireball, skidding off the runway. All 12 souls on the smaller plane were lost, as were 23 of the 89 aboard the Boeing. Koch survived. In the smoke and chaos, he jumped up, wrenched open one of the forward doors, and leapt to the ground. Right after he exited, fire engulfed the forward cabin, where most of the fatalities occurred. Koch was the only passenger in first class to survive.
“This experience was very spiritual,” he told New York magazine. “I was saved when all those others died. I felt that the good Lord spared my life for a purpose. And since then, I’ve been busy doing all the good works I can think of.” Not long after, Koch married. He and his wife Julia produced three children.
The other seminal ’90s event was Koch’s diagnosis with advanced prostate cancer. It sparked a second fight for survival. Over the next quarter century, Koch underwent at least four different types of treatments: radiation therapy, surgery, hormone therapy, and a drug intervention. As he battled his own cancer, Koch set his eyes on defeating the wider disease. “Discovering that I had cancer and the terrible fear that it generated in me turned me into a crusader,” he told Philanthropy magazine, “a crusader to provide financing to many different centers to develop cures—not only for prostate cancer but for other kinds of cancer as well.”
Koch donated hundreds of millions of dollars—at least one-third of his lifetime giving—to medical research. In 2015, for instance, he gave $150 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering to build a 23-story building for care of cancer patients. Among his biggest investments were anti-cancer projects at his alma mater.
Capping a decade of support for cancer investigations at MIT, he provided $100 million in 2007 to create an integrated cancer research center there. The Koch Institute’s particular aim is to incorporate MIT’s engineering expertise into the work of battling tumors. A spectacular new facility opened in 2011 to co-house a mix of 700 bioengineers and top cancer researchers.
“Engineers bring a series of skills unfamiliar to your average biologist—who may not understand, for example, nanotechnology or network structures,” noted institute director Tyler Jacks. But engineers need a problem to solve. “Engineering development in a vacuum isn’t helpful. The contributions of the biologists are to define the nature of the problem, and to provide insights into the molecular basis of the problem.”
One Koch Institute contribution is the growing field of “precision medicine,” which affords cancer patients individualized treatments that more effectively target disease while limiting damage to healthy tissue. This work is based in part on MIT research in nanoparticles as a delivery method for cancer therapies. In a 2012 interview with Philanthropy, Koch described his institute’s pioneering on nanoparticles as the work he was most proud of.
Despite his spirited personal and philanthropic battle against cancer, the disease eventually caught up with David Koch. Thanks to his efforts, though, the scourge has been rebuffed by many others.
- Philanthropy magazine profile of David Koch, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/the_team_builder
- Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs, 2007)
- Andrew Goldman, “The Billionaire’s Party,” New York Magazine July 2010, nymag.com/news/features/67285/