Rockefeller Foundation

Promoting American social sciences in Europe

Updated: November 07, 2012

The Rockefeller Foundation is one of the most prominent American philanthropic organizations, funding international research and exchange in the transatlantic world and beyond. Established in 1913 by John D. Rockefeller, his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Frederick Taylor Gates, the Rockefeller Foundation was created “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world” through involvement in a variety of fields (Sachse, 2009). Financially supporting education in the U.S., establishing public health schools like the Harvard School of Public Health, and developing vaccines to prevent diseases such as yellow fever are just a few examples from a long list of diverse engagements. Taking an international approach from the outset, the Foundation introduced a program in area studies to increase cultural understanding at universities in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, India, and Japan. In the 1930s, the foundation also provided “grants-in-aid” to persecuted scholars from Europe. 

In the first years after its founding, the Rockefeller Foundation focused on addressing the challenges facing contemporary American society. In April 1913, the New York State Legislature passed an act incorporating the Rockefeller Foundation. In connection with this act, John D. Rockefeller Sr. donated $35 million to the Foundation, followed a year later by another $65 million. At the first meeting of the board of trustees, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was elected as the foundation’s first president and it was decided that the research and promotion of public health would be the foundation’s priority. In the years that followed, foundation resources were used to fund medical education, disease prophylaxis, and medicine development. A major focus was also collaboration with postdoctoral scholars from leading universities including Harvard, Duke, and Yale in the form of international fellowships. Initially, only Americans were offered fellowships to attend programs mainly at schools of public health. After the programs proved successful, however, they were expanded to other universities worldwide. First, they were introduced in countries such as Great Britain, France, and Germany, and later in Eastern Europe and China.

The Foundation soon developed and expanded the scope of its interests, both in terms of the types of issues it sought to address and the geographic reach of its programs. Foundation-funded philanthropic activity was divided into five realms: medical, health, and population science; agricultural and natural sciences; arts and humanities; social science; and international relations. The well-being of women and children around the world in particular gained in importance. In 1918, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, a smaller foundation that was later folded into the Rockefeller Foundation, was created to support child-rearing, health, religion, and welfare projects. After World War I, the Rockefeller Foundation also donated $22 million to send food supplies to European countries. This support reflected the Foundation’s concern for international humanitarian issues and helped firmly establish it as an international philanthropic power.

At the same time, first attempts were made to introduce transnational cooperation to the foundation’s scientific and research activities. The Rockefeller Foundation believed in the practical benefits of modernization through the application of science. To a certain degree, no distinction between “modernization” and “Americanization” was made. In their opinion, the spread of western values and scientific advancements would benefit other countries. Knowledge would be diffused through different types of programs covering a wide range of topics, though health was seen as the field with the greatest potential to impact global development. The U.S. became a center for knowledge and research through a growing influence on European academic life. By establishing exchange programs among universities in different countries foreign scientists learned an “Americanized” approach to empirical research.  It was hoped that former fellows would promote what they have learned abroad at their home universities.

The flow of knowledge funded by the foundation was not, however, a one-way transfer. During the 1930s, the Foundation actively made an effort to help Jewish scholars from Europe immigrate to the United States. About 300 social scientists and scholars left Europe and accepted grants and support in diverse forms from the Foundation. Among them were author Thomas Mann, attorney Arnold Brecht, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, economist Oskar Morgenstern, sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, and physicist Leó Szilárd. Though some of these grant recipients returned home, many of them remained in the United States and pursued carriers at important universities, institutes or programs funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Many former grant recipients – both those who remained in the U.S. and those who returned to Europe – remained in contact, broadening a transatlantic network of intellectuals and scientists. These connections made it easier for future scholars to come to America either as immigrants or as participants in exchange programs. The Rockefeller Foundation’s Medical Sciences Division, which researched female contraception, and the Natural Sciences Division, which promoted new, effective agricultural techniques in different Latin American countries, are just two examples of such programs.

Despite its honorable goals, the Foundation’s research was not always without controversy. In the early twentieth century, the international scientific community’s interest in eugenic studies increased. Scientists like Alexander Graham Bell researched the passing of defective genes from parent to child and the possibility of preventing the reproduction of such individuals as a way to stop the spread of mental illness and inherited conditions like deafness. Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic were engaged in eugenics research and, beginning in 1926, the Rockefeller Foundation financially supported the German Institute for Psychiatric Research (DFA). The Foundation was particularly interested in the scientific testing of twins in regards to the impact heredity and environmental factors had on child development. It took years for Rockefeller Foundation members to discover the real purpose behind the Institute’s research and it was not until 1939, amid growing concerns about Hitler’s Germany, that the Foundation discontinued its support for the eugenic studies.

After World War II, the Rockefeller Foundation participated in “postwar reconstruction and peace settlement” (Rausch, 2007) to promote postwar economic growth on the one hand and to strengthen transatlantic relations with Western European scholars on the other. Within the context of postwar reconstruction, major organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Ford Foundation made an effort to re-establish the social sciences in Europe. In America, the social sciences were entirely integrated into the academic landscape. In Europe, however, they were struggling for academic legitimation. Through the creation of scientific programs and projects involving international scholars, these foundations sought to strengthen and broaden the social sciences at universities and institutes.  For example, a committee of American and European scientists was assembled to discuss strategies for improving socio-economic conditions in developing countries. Through collaboration, the American social scientific approach was spread among European scholars who were then able to introduce the newly-learned methods at their home universities. Financial support was also granted to universities in e.g. London, Berlin, and Stockholm to establish social science centers which could then choose appropriate projects on which to spend the funds. 

In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the Rockefeller Foundation took further steps to tighten the link between European and American scholars. It even attempted to cooperate with former fellows who now worked behind the Iron Curtain. The foundation granted fellowships and provided equipment to medical schools in Russia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to maintain both the cooperation and the health standards they had been working towards for decades. In times of suspicion and limited contact across closely guarded borders, the Rockefeller Foundation had to find its place between the struggle for institutional autonomy and entanglement in governmental power. They kept close ties to the State Department on the one side and continued to fund programs in Eastern Europe on the other. To counter communist influences in academia and the arts, the Rockefeller Foundation supported the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which organized traveling art exhibitions and academic conferences, and was also backed by the Museum of Modern Art, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. government.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Rockefeller Foundation turned its attention to history. Various projects were launched to promote the study of the history of women, family history, and the use of oral history to document American cultural heritage. Global environmental and international security issues also began to attract Foundation attention and funding. In this context, the Foundation fostered programs to research Soviet foreign policy and behavior. Among the scholars involved in these programs were individuals from various branches of the U.S. government and armed services. 

Still, cooperation with European scholars, and collaborations with African, Asian, and Latin-American scientists remained the quickest growing and most productive means of pursuing the Foundation’s goals. As the Rockefeller Foundation goals were met in Europe, the Foundation’s focus shifted to expand its programs in other parts of the world. From its beginnings as an organization seeking to improve the health conditions in both America and around the world, the Rockefeller Foundation developed into an influential institution interested in a great variety of fields, cooperating with fellows and scientists from all over the world. Even through times of crisis, including two World Wars and the Cold War, the Rockefeller Foundation sought to overcome boarders through global networking. From the beginning, the foundation aimed to achieve its goals through international and interdisciplinary cooperation and exchange. 

Selected Bibliography

Fleck, Christian. "Long-Term Consequences of Short-Term Fellowships." The "Unacceptables": American Foundations and Refugee Scholars between the Two Wars and after Brussels: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2000.

Fleck, Christian. Transatlantische Bereicherungen. Zur Erfindung der empirischen Sozialforschung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2007.

Fosdick, Raymond B. The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation. New York: Harper, 1952.

Gemelli, Giuliana and Roy MacLeod, eds. American Foundations in Europe: Grant-Giving Policies, Cultural Diplomacy and Trans-Atlantic Relations, 1920-1980. Brussels: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2003.

Rausch, Helke. "US-amerikanische 'Scientific Philanthropy' in Frankreich, Deutschland und Großbritannien zwischen den Weltkriegen." Geschichte und Gesellschaft 22.1 (2007): 73–98.

Sachse, Carola. "What Research, to What End? The Rockefeller Foundation and the Max Planck Gesellschaft in the Early Cold War." Central European History 42.1 (2009): 97-141.

Archival Collections

Rockefeller Foundation Archives (1912–2000). The Rockefeller Archives Center. Sleepy Hollow, NY.

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MLA Style

"Rockefeller Foundation," Transatlantic Perspectives, 2016, Transatlantic Perspectives. 9 Dec 2016 <http://www.transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=96>

APA Style

"Rockefeller Foundation." (2016) In Transatlantic Perspectives, Retrieved December 9, 2016, from Transatlantic Perspectives: http://www.transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=96