Rockefeller Foundation: Biomedical and Life Sciences Offshoots


Established in 1913 in New York City, United States, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was the most influential philanthropic foundation sponsoring the biomedical and life sciences in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as a key policy maker in steering the course of biological progress as part of a global strategy to promote social stability. The RF also pioneered interdisciplinary activities, most notably the transfer of technologies from the exact sciences to biology, which played a role in the rise of molecular biology. The molecular revolution in biology and medicine, which reached a peak in the 1960s and is still unfolding, can be traced to the technocratic, international and interdisciplinary policies pursued by the RF in its interwar heydays. After Second World War, with the advent of massive governmental support for science, the RF phased out its programs in science and medicine, focusing instead on promoting the ‘Green Revolution’ in Third World agriculture.

Key Concepts:

  • The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) pioneered the international funding of scientific research in the interwar period, when many governments, especially in the United States and France, were not supporting such research.

  • The RF's main motivation was to achieve social stability in the aftermath of First World War carnage, by emphasising the sciences of life (experimental and molecular biology) over the sciences of death (physics and chemistry).

  • The RF's policy was interdisciplinary, revolving around the transfer of physico‐chemical technologies to biology, which often meant the entry of scientists trained in the exact sciences (mathematics, chemistry and physics) into biology.

  • The main instrument of research funding that could have a long‐term impact was the ‘research grant’ given to selected grantees for extended 3‐ to 5‐year periods at a time. It was monitored through site visits by RF officers, their correspondence with grantees and summarised by both grantees and officers for RF's public Annual Reports.

  • Although the RF President and its trustees had the formal authority to make research policy, the officers (Divisions Directors and Associate and Assistant Directors) who implemented that policy had considerable latitude because they had sole responsibility for selecting grantees, communicating with them on a routine basis and above all determining who could get long‐term and large‐scale support. Long‐term Division Directors, such as Alan Gregg (Medical Sciences) and Warren Weaver (Natural Sciences), had impact on bioscience.

  • Bureaucratic constraints within RF such as the balance of power between trustees and officers; the aspirations of the President and his rapport with other Rockefeller philanthropic boards; boundary conflicts between the Natural Sciences and Medical Sciences Divisions as well as the historical context of the Great Depression shaped RF's approach to risk. This meant that institutionally powerful and entrepreneurial grantees were favoured over junior innovators, a trend that eventually distanced RF from the changing biological frontier, but smoothed the rise of ‘big science’ after Second World War.

  • After Second World War, RF began to withdraw its support of science, which attracted by then large‐scale governmental support, focusing instead on agriculture in the Third World.

Keywords: Alan Gregg; Warren Weaver; experimental biology; molecular biology; biotheoretical gathering; William Astbury; Linus Pauling; Dorothy Hodgkin; Max Perutz


Abir‐Am PG (1982) The discourse on physical power and biological knowledge in the 1930s: a reappraisal of the Rockefeller Foundation's ‘policy’ in molecular biology. Social Studies of Science 12(August): 341–382.

Abir‐Am PG (1995) ‘New’ trends in the history of molecular biology. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 26(1): 167–196.

Abir‐Am PG (2001) The Rockefeller Foundation's international network of protein research projects, 1930–1960. In: Gemelli G (ed.) American Foundations and Large‐Scale Research, pp. 71–90. Bologna: CLUEB.

Abir‐Am PG (2002) The Rockefeller Foundation and the rise of molecular biology. Nature Reviews. Molecular Cell Biology 3(January): 65–70.

Abir‐Am PG (2010) The Rockefeller Foundation and the post‐WW2 transnational ecology of science policy: from solitary splendor in the inter‐war era to a “me too” agenda in the 1950s. Centaurus 52(4): 323–337.

Abir‐Am PG, Bartels D, Fuerst J, Olby R and Yoxen EJ (1984) Responses and replies – special section on the Rockefeller Foundation and science policy. Social Studies of Science 14(May): 225–263.

Appel TA (2000) Shaping Biology: The NSF and American Biological Research, 1945–1975. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Cueto M (ed.) (1994) Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation in Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fisher D (1978) The Rockefeller Foundation and the development of scientific medicine in Great Britain. Minerva 16(1): 21–41.

Gemelli G (ed.) (2000) The Unacceptables, American Foundations and Refugee Scholars between the Two Wars and After. Brussels: Euroclio.

Gemelli G (ed.) (2001) American Foundations and Large Scale Research: Construction and Transfer of Knowledge. Bologna: CLUEB.

Kay LE (1988) Laboratory technology and biological knowledge: the Tiselius electrophoresis apparatus, 1930–1945. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 10: 51–72.

Kay LE (1993) Molecular Visions, Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation and the New Biology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kevles D (1977) The NSF and the debate over postwar research policy. Isis 68: 5–26.

Kohler RE (1991) Partners in Science, Natural Scientists and Foundations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Krige J (2006) American Hegemony and the Reconstruction of Science in Europe after WW2. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, chapters 4 and 5.

Murard L and Zylberman P (2000) Seeds for French health care: did the Rockefeller Foundation plant the seeds between the two world wars? Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 31(3): 463–475.

Picard J‐F (1999) La Fondation Rockefeller at al Recherche Medicale. Paris: PUF.

Schneider M (2003) The model American foundation officer: Alan Gregg and the Rockefeller Foundation's medical divisions. Minerva 41(2): 155–166.

Schneider WH (ed.) (2002) Rockefeller Philanthropy and Modern Medicine: International Initiatives from WW1 to the Cold War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Stapleton DH (2000) Internationalism and nationalism: the Rockefeller Foundation, public health, and malaria in Italy, 1823–1951. Parasitologia 42: 127–134.

Stapleton DH (ed.) (2004) Creating a Tradition of Biomedical Research: Contributions to the History of the Rockefeller University. New York: Rockefeller University Press.

Tournes L (2006) Le reseau des boursiers Rockefeller et la recomposition des saviors biomedicaux en France (1920–1970). French Historical Studies 29: 77–107.

Weindling P (1997) Philanthropy and world health: the Rockefeller Foundation and the League of Nations’ health organization. Minerva XXXV: 269–281.

Weindling P (2001) The role of foundations in international population studies. In: Gemelli G (ed.) American Foundations and Large‐Scale Research, pp. 167–180. Bologna: CLUEB.

Further Reading

Cueto M (1990) The Rockefeller Foundation's medical policy and scientific research in Latin America: the case of physiology. Social Studies of Science 20: 229–254.

Gemelli G and MacLeod R (eds) (2003) American Foundations in Europe, Grant‐Giving Policies, Cultural Diplomacy, and Transatlantic Relations, 1920–1980. Brussels: European Interuniversity Press.

Pressman JD (1998) Human understanding: psychosomatic medicine and the mission of the Rockefeller Foundation. In: Lawrence C and Weisz G (eds) Greater than the Parts, Holism in Biomedicine, 1920–1950, pp. 189–208. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stapleton DH (2003) Joseph Willits and the Rockefeller's European program in the social sciences. Minerva XLI(2): 101–114.

Tournes L (2001) Mass communication and the foundations: Rockefeller, Ford, and the role of the radio, 1935–1964. In: Gemelli G (ed.) American Foundations and Large‐Scale Research, pp. 129–144. Bologna: CLUEB.

Weindling P (1988) The Rockefeller Foundation and German biomedical sciences, 1920–1940: from educational philanthropy to international science policy. In: Rupke NA (ed.) Science, Politics, and the Public Good, Essays in Honor of Margaret Gowing, pp. 119–140. New York: Macmillan.

Zallen D (1992) The Rockefeller Foundation and spectroscopy research: the programs at Chicago and Utrecht. Journal of the History of Biology 25: 67–85.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Abir‐Am, Pnina G(Dec 2010) Rockefeller Foundation: Biomedical and Life Sciences Offshoots. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003413.pub2]