The Advancement of Knowledge

After a major reorganization in 1928, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) entered an era that would in some ways become its defining period. Its operations were now more consolidated than ever, and its infrastructure functioned like a well-oiled machine. John D. Rockefeller and Frederick Gates’ vision of a philanthropy that would run like a corporate business had come to fruition. Yet the Foundation was about to enter a challenging decade. The Depression exacted a toll even on an entity as richly endowed as the RF. In fact 1939 witnessed the smallest return on investments--and hence the smallest income to spend--that the RF had ever experienced.

RF Officers En Route to Poland, 1957

RF Officers En Route to Poland, 1957

In 1928, the Foundation organized itself into five divisions, roughly patterned on the academic departments of universities. Most of the related Rockefeller philanthropies, which had previously had independent boards as well as overlapping purposes, were folded into the RF or set free to become separate entities:

  1. The Division of Social Sciences resulted from the RF absorption of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM).
  2. The Division of Humanities took some of its work from the short-lived Division of Studies, and some from the General Education Board (GEB). The GEB was given its own funds to spend down and would now operate independently of RF.
  3. The Division of Natural Sciences replaced the International Education Board (IEB). It maintained and expanded the IEB’s Fellowship Program, but also developed a new research agenda of its own in experimental biology.
  4. The Division of Medical Education was renamed the Division of Medical Sciences to emphasize the Foundation’s more explicit focus on medical research as well as training; it also moved into the fields of psychiatry and neuropsychiatry.
  5. The International Health Division (IHD) continued the RF’s longstanding public health work, and remained the only quasi-independent entity.

The guiding concept of the RF now became “the advancement of knowledge.”[1] This tenet both reflected and extended the Foundation’s longstanding attachment to science. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the RF committed itself to scientific research as a means of enabling human progress. Raymond Fosdick, an RF trustee and Rockefeller family friend who would become the Foundation’s President in 1936, engineered the 1928 scheme. As he put it, “It was not to be five programs, each represented by a division of the Foundation, it was to be essentially one program, directed to the general problems of human behavior, with the aim of control through understanding.”[2]

The Understanding of Life

At first RF division directors struggled to give cohesion to their programs. From 1929 to 1934, the directors submitted proposals displaying similar but shifting terms. They also grappled with the effect of the Depression on RF finances, questioning whether smaller grants could have a level of influence comparable to the grand sums devoted to institution-building in the early years.

Even with the formal inclusion of the social sciences and humanities divisions, the institutional culture of the Foundation was dominated by science. The program in the natural sciences emerged as the most prominent of the mid-century initiatives. Warren Weaver, a mathematics professor recruited to run the division, undertook a program of self-education in the natural and physical sciences reminiscent of Gates’ immersion in medical science at the turn of the century. Weaver decided that the next great scientific frontier would be biology, which he felt lagged behind the other fields and offered the potential to unlock the mysteries of life itself. He began by calling his new program the study of “vital essences,” then renamed it “experimental biology.”[3] Finally, as scientific technology enabled the study of smaller and smaller units, he coined the term “molecular biology,” and in effect invented a new field.[4]

Wickliffe Rose’s IEB fellowship program had been instrumental in the development of physics and chemistry in the 1920s. Weaver maintained a similar system of support for individuals, and identified fellowship candidates in much the same way as Rose had. He and his field staff continuously visited laboratories across the U.S. and Europe to tap the minds of the era’s leading researchers. But what Weaver now aimed to do was to institute knowledge transfer, applying the techniques of physics and chemistry to biological problems. Under his direction, the RF funded Linus Pauling’s work on the alpha helix, Norbert Wiener’s work on biofeedback, and Dorothy Hodgkin’s X-ray crystallography. Operating from both New York and the Paris Field Office, the Foundation was instrumental in most of the atomic and molecular innovations of mid-century science.

The advent of the World War II was possibly even harder on the Foundation than the First World War had been. Some RF-sponsored scientific research produced startling, unanticipated developments like the atomic bomb. The Foundation’s war work now included rescuing and relocating hundreds of refugee scholars from its well-developed scientific network. As RF officers watched the science they had helped foster in Europe become appropriated to fascism’s ends, they declared that “reason is everywhere in retreat.”[4]

Post-War Priorities

In the decade following the war, the RF redefined its purpose and its areas of work. This represented a significant realignment. Universities and foundations had virtually switched places in terms of wealth; where RF contributions had been essential to supporting basic research in the first decades of the twentieth century, now several university endowments dwarfed Foundation resources. The federal government now supported scientific research and administered social programs on a much higher level. These changes were exactly what the RF founders had hoped for: that RF-initiated programs would find government and institutional sponsorship for the long term. But now the RF needed to find a new role.

Agriculture Emerges

The Foundation’s concentration on medicine and public health began to decline in the 1950s. In part, this reflected the 1953 retirement of the Medical Division’s longtime director, Alan Gregg. But it also reflected the maturation of seeds the RF had planted early on: Medical schools in North America and Europe were now thriving on their own. Basic public health problems had been largely ameliorated in Western, developed nations with post-industrial, non-agricultural economies. And with the creation of the World Health Organization, there was a new institution to take on a larger global role.

The IHD was terminated in 1951, and public health work was transferred to the Division of Medical Sciences, renamed the Division of Medicine and Public Health. In 1959 it was renamed again as the Division of Medical and Natural Sciences, with the term “health” phased out altogether. What had been called the Foundation’s “domination by doctors”[5] in its first thirty years gave way to a new era dominated by agricultural scientists and technicians.

The Foundation launched its Mexican Agriculture Program in 1943. The idea had been under consideration since the early 1930s, and is credited to a remark made by Henry Wallace, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Iowa-born Wallace, a corn breeder himself, asserted that that the best thing anyone could do for Mexico would be to revolutionize corn production. By 1943 the instability of Europe made Mexico even more appealing as a safe region in which RF work would not be disrupted. Directed by J. George Harrar, the agriculture program aimed to develop more resilient, high-yield varieties of corn and other cereals, as well as to teach Mexican farmers new techniques that could provide a more abundant and consistent food supply.

Yield of hybrid combinations, Cotaxtla (Mexico) 1962

Yield of hybrid combinations, Cotaxtla (Mexico) 1962

The RF was particularly well-equipped to run such an enterprise, with almost three decades of experience conducting agriculture demonstration programs in the U.S. and Europe. However, the program was also a new frontier for the RF.  It was the first large-scale, long-term operational program to be run by RF staff, including future Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug. Eventually, the breakthroughs of the Mexican program sparked global agricultural reforms that came to be termed the “Green Revolution”. The Foundation would be as renowned in the late twentieth century for its agricultural work as it had been for its health work in the century’s opening decades.

While its agriculture work still clearly sought Fosdick’s “control through understanding” and continued to rely on research, the RF no longer attempted to find universal truths to open-ended questions about life processes. Rather, it increasingly sought to apply research toward concrete ends. In 1955 President Dean Rusk described the Foundation’s core themes as “Man’s Physical Environment, Man’s Human Environment, and Man’s Moral and Aesthetic Values.”[6]

The Cold War World Order

As its emphasis shifted to agriculture, the Foundation’s areas of geographic concern also changed. By the late 1950s it turned its attention away from Europe to concentrate almost entirely on developing nations in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, establishing task forces to study each region. Rusk, who would go on to become U.S. Secretary of State, was particularly attuned to the issues of the developing world. Throughout the 1950s, former colonies achieved independence. With the Cold War in full swing, they became contested terrain in the battle between liberal democracy and Communism. Furthermore, the economic gap between the developed and developing countries was becoming more and more glaring. 

RF staff had identified both food and population as key aspects of this growing gap as early as the 1940s. As they explored those issues, they also began to support new models for addressing the values to which Rusk alluded. The RF had funded linguistics and foreign language programs since the 1930s. Now they began to promote area studies programs in U.S. universities. These interdisciplinary programs foreshadowed the blurring of academic divisional boundaries at universities later in the 1960s. They also offered a platform for social scientific studies of non-Western cultures that could inform and enable democracy-building initiatives and the promotion of civil society.

The 1959 gift of a magnificent Italian villa on the banks of Lake Como provided an unparalleled venue for a new operating program. To further both its own work and support that of others, the RF transformed the Villa Serbelloni into the Bellagio Center, a venue for international conferences and scholarly and artistic residencies.

The Foundation at Fifty

As the RF celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1963, it once again sought to redefine itself. As a crowd of prominent guests enjoyed a gala anniversary dinner at New York’s Plaza Hotel, the Foundation undertook a major reorganization that adopted formally the interdisciplinary principles it had encouraged in universities. The changes of 1963 would fundamentally affect the Foundation’s goals and operations for the next half century.