The Rockefeller name has become synonymous with wealth and prestige. Many know of the ultra-rich family, whose name is attached to buildings, schools, and an annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. However, few know much more than this about the man behind the name.
John D. Rockefeller was an American industrialist, part of a group informally referred to as the “captains of industry.” Born in 1839, Rockefeller started his first company by the age of 20 and never looked back. Noticing an opportunity in the oil industry, Rockefeller established a refinery near Cleveland, Ohio, that became the largest in the area within two years. He devoted all his attention to the oil industry, amassing a powerful monopoly that made him both the richest man in the world and an object of criticism. Later in life he turned to philanthropy, creating a legacy that has endured to this day.
Standard Oil Company
In 1870, John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil Company after opening an oil refinery near Cleveland. Within twelve years, Standard Oil controlled nearly 90 percent of the United States’ oil pipelines and refineries.
In Rockefeller’s view, the best way to increase wealth was to control nearly every aspect of the industry in which his business operated. To this end, Standard Oil owned oil barrel-building companies, purchased pipelines and rail terminals, and employed scientists who developed new uses for petroleum.
Critics accused Rockefeller of coercion, bribery, greed, and other charges. They claimed Standard Oil was a monopoly, which prompted a congressional investigation. In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, and Standard Oil was one of the first targets of the legislation. Rockefeller dissolved the corporation and divided it into smaller business units. For almost ten years, the individual pieces of the corporation operated on their own, though with Rockefeller still on top. He ultimately reassembled them into a holding company, and Congress once again stepped in to break up the conglomerate. Declaring the company was violating anti-trust laws, the government again forced it to dismantle.
The Rockefeller University (The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research)
One of the greatest tragedies of Rockefeller’s life was the death of his grandson in 1901 due to scarlet fever. As a result, Rockefeller solidified plans to establish a research center in the United States. Rockefeller’s funding, in collaboration with assistance from his son, provided the foundation for the institution. As the United States’ first biomedical research center, The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research endeavored to find cures for some of the greatest medical threats to mankind at the time. Tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and diphtheria were rampant, and much was unknown about them. The scientists at the Institute began in earnest to study the causes and cures of these and other diseases.
In addition to its own research efforts, the Institute offered grants to individuals working in other areas. Some of their initial grants funded research into public health threats such as contaminated milk.
Within a few years, the Institute added a hospital, becoming the first clinical research center in the country. Through patient-based research, the Institute advanced the medical community’s knowledge of polio, diabetes, and heart disease. To this day, the Institute remains one of the leading research facilities in the country and has set the standard for patient-based studies.
Medical advances pioneered by Institute researchers include heroin recovery treatments, the identification of blood groups, life-extending drug treatments for HIV/AIDS patients, and treatments for tumors. The most notable breakthroughs at the Institute also include the development of the first pneumonia vaccine and the discovery that DNA transmits hereditary information. In addition, scientists at the Institute made significant contributions to the field of cell biology.
As the Institute expanded, a natural development was the addition of a scholastic facility, and in 1965, the Institute was renamed The Rockefeller University. The university continues to be at the forefront of scientific research and discovery, and has been part of many of this century’s greatest scientific and medical breakthroughs.
The Rockefeller Foundation was chartered in New York in the early part of 1913. With initial donations of $35 million and then $65 million from Rockefeller, the foundation was instantly a powerhouse in the world of philanthropy. Committed to promoting the well-being of all humankind, the foundation made its first charitable donation to help the American Red Cross secure land for a national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Prompted by the death of Rockefeller’s grandson, the foundation focused primarily on medical and educational organizations as the first recipients of its assistance. Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan were some of the early beneficiaries of the foundation, as well as multiple other schools and universities around the world.
Other early initiatives the foundation supported involved research into hookworm, malaria, and yellow fever. After World War II, it expanded its focus to include support for agricultural studies designed to increase crop production around the world, as well as reduce plant disease.
In recent years, the Rockefeller Foundation has renewed its efforts to assist the plight of people around the world, and has treaded through some of the world’s toughest issues. Bioengineered food supplies, hunger crises around the globe, and food security have all been addressed by its funding. Continuing as one of the world’s largest and oldest philanthropic bodies, the foundation has reasserted itself as a leader in helping the poorest of the poor.
While Rockefeller was widely criticized for his business practices and strategies, his years of philanthropy have tempered the voices of his opponents. After his retirement in the 1890s, Rockefeller followed in the footsteps of fellow business magnate Andrew Carnegie and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy. In total, he donated more than a half a billion dollars to charitable causes before his death in 1937. His life’s legacy is a mixture of ambition and charity, and reflects a man who made the most of every opportunity.