The past and the future of research in the history of science: medicine and technology at the Rockefeller Archive Center

The past and the future of research in the history of science: medicine and technology at the Rockefeller Archive Center

The Rockefeller Archive Center is a unique research institution with a valuable collection of documents for the study of science, medicine and technology in the 20th century. It holds the archives of the Rockefeller family, of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and associated organizations, and of The Rockefeller University, as well as of approximately thirty other philanthropic institutions. Because of the global reach of Rockefeller philanthropic activity, and because the strategy of Rockefeller philanthropy was to associate itself with innovation and change, the documentation at the Archive Center provides insights into many of the developments that have shaped the 20th century. A partial list of these includes the Green Revolution, the promotion of experimental medicine, the social sciences, and the visual arts.

I will review each of these areas briefly.

The Green Revolution

One of the earliest areas of Rockefeller philanthropic activity was the promotion of improved farming practices in the southern United States in the first decade of this century. In the 1920s and 1930s, when European agriculture seemed to be in trouble, the International Education Board and the RF brought many European agronomists, plant pathologists and agricultural engineers to the U.S. for education in American methods. In 1941, after thirty years of experience in promoting agricultural innovation, the RF was prepared to respond when the former vice-president of the U.S., Henry Wallace, suggested that the foundation find a way to aid the depressed Mexican agricultural sector.

Beginning in 1943 in Mexico the Rockefeller Foundation’s Agriculture Division experimented with the development of hybrid varieties of maize and wheat that would be more productive and could be grown successfully under a broader range of conditions than existing varieties. Mexico was chosen as the site of this work because it had excellent agricultural land but was an importer of food. By the end of the 1940s the RF project, led by Norman Bourlag and George Harrar, had introduced dramatically improved hybrid varieties of maize. In 1950 the RF created a second centerfor the development of plant hybrids in Colombia, working on beans, potatoes, rice, and barley in addition to maize, and in 1952 it initiated the Corn Improvement Program throughout Central America. Within a few years the Green Revolution had spread to India and Southeast Asia (Anderson, 1991, p. 61-89; Fitzgerald, 1986, pp. 457-83; Perkins, 1990, pp. 6-18 and Stakman et alii, 1967).

The promotion of experimental medicine

In 1901 John D. Rockefeller founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, the first institution in the U.S. devoted to full-time laboratory research on disease and human physiology (Corner, 1964). Of course the Pasteur Institute in France and the Koch Institute in Germany were preceding models for the Rockefeller Institute (now known as Rockefeller University), but in two decades the institute became the source of trained staff for laboratories of experimental medicine that the RF funded throughout the world.

These laboratories were elements of the medical schools that the RF helped to establish in the 1920s in areas as far apart as Beijing, Bangkok, London, and Cambridge (MA). Grants for upgrading laboratory equipment usually followed a few years later. Often the RF lent its staff to these schools to help with the start-up years, and in virtually all cases it provided fellowships to promising students to give them specialized training at U.S. or European centers. Its international network of connections also made it possible for it to assist some of the staff of these Rockefeller-related institutions to go to even more advanced laboratories elsewhere for months or even years to become skilled in the latest techniques.

In addition to the archives of Rockefeller University and the documentation of Rockefeller support of institutions and individuals throughout the world, the Archive Center holds the archives of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, which is a Rockefeller-related institution because of the massive funding it has received from John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his son Laurance Rockefeller.

It is difficult to estimate the impact on experimental medicine of Rockefeller philanthropic activity, but any survey of acknowledged leaders in this field in the 20th century, such as a list of Nobel prize winners in medicine or physiology, will turn up a significant portion with some Rockefeller connection.

Social sciences

The first large Rockefeller academic institution, the University of Chicago, founded in 1889, was the birthplace of modern academic sociology in the United States, and the Laura Spelman RockefellerMemorial, created by John D. Rockefeller in 1918, was the first substantial source of funding for social sciences in the United States. The memorial helped to create the Social Science Research Council in the U.S., and similar coordinating organizations for social science funding in Australia and Canada. It also gave substantial grants for social science research in Germany, Britain, and France. In 1928 it was merged with the RF and the foundation’s social science program became global, emphasizing economics theory, but supporting other areas. This support diminished in the 1960s, but the RF continues to be a funder of the Social Science Research Council in the U.S.

It is important to note here that the Archive Center also holds the archives of the Russell Sage Foundation, founded in 1907, which was the first American philanthropy to fund social science research, and one that continues that mission today.

The visual arts

The Rockefeller family has been one of the great patrons of the visual arts in the world. Perhaps the most notable act by a family member was Abby Rockefeller’s co-founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1928 (Kert, 1993). Her sons John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Nelson A. Rockefeller, and David Rockefeller continued the family’s patronage of that institution.

Nelson Rockefeller was also deeply interested in folk art, particularly Mexican folk art, and collected immense amounts. Museums in Texas and California hold substantial collections of his work. The Archive Center holds the papers of Nelson Rockefeller, amounting to about 3,000 cubic feet of records, which include extensive documentation of his interest in art (Oettinger Jr., 1990; Espejel et alii, c. 1986).

11 Let me briefly summarize the history of the Archive Center that brought these collections together in one place. John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company in 1870 and thus of the family fortune, was a very careful record-keeper (Chernow, 1998). He was a trained accountant, and he was a devout Baptist who believed that his wealth was given to him by God and it was his responsibility to use it properly. He could not have a clear conscience unless he kept a careful record of every cent expended, and unless he gave the biblically-required one-tenth to charity. He also had to be assured that one-tenth of his income was well-spent on people or organizations that genuinely needed assistance. Our records therefore begin in 1855 with John D. Rockefeller’s personal and office account books, which list every dime expended; the number of account books dramatically increases after 1879 when he set up a personal staff to manage his affairs. The tradition of keeping account books has been passed down to at least the fourth generation of Rockefellers. The pattern of record-keeping was reinforced about 1910 when the Standard Oil monopoly was under attack in the American courts, and it became necessary for the Rockefeller office to be able to locate documents easily. An index system was created then that later was a model for other indexes that controlled information in the records of the new Rockefeller philanthropies. Those indexes, which are held at the Archive Center, are still useful tools for locating information in the archives. An updated version of the Guide appears at What the Archive Center is and is not
I have sketched out these various areas in order to give you a sense of the scope of the Archive Center’s collections — because I think it is important at the outset to remember that it is not just an archive of the Rockefeller family, or just the archives of the Rockefeller Foundation, or just the archives of the Center’s home institution, The Rockefeller University, but all of these, and more — the archives of the General Education Board, the International Health Board, the International Education Board, the China Medical Board, the Bureau of Social Hygiene, the Commonwealth Fund, the Social Science Research Council, and, the papers of Nelson A. Rockefeller, an undersecretary of state, governor of New York and vice-president of the United States (Oakhill et al., 1989).
The Archive Center was formed in 1974 because it was recognized by historians that this tradition of creating organized records had resulted in an outstanding body of documentation of important individuals, institutions, and events from the last quarter of the 19th century to the present, and because John D. Rockefeller 3rd and David Rockefeller, grandsons of John D. Rockefeller, took the view that researchers should have access to such a collection of records (Harr et al., 1991, pp. 487-90). The particular genius of the founding of the center was joining the records of the Rockefeller family with the philanthropic organizations it had created, so that a researcher can follow the development of ideas and actions from one body of records to another.
As a hypothetical case, one could track a Latin American epidemiologist’s career from the granting of a graduate fellowship by the International Health Board in the 1920s for study at Johns Hopkins University, to evidence that he accepted a post-doctoral appointment at a Johns Hopkins laboratory funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to his six-month visit at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research to study particular laboratory techniques, to his acceptance of a post at a medical school in Latin America, to his successful application in the 1930s for a Rockefeller grant to establish a new laboratory to continue his research, to contact with the sanitary program of the Office of Inter-American Affairs headed by NelsonRockefeller in the early 1940s, to the epidemiologist’s own graduate students receiving Rockefeller Foundation fellowships in the 1940s to commence their own studies at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, or Michigan.
Similar interconnections allow researchers to track not only the histories of individuals, but also of institutions, and of scientific, medical and technological developments. For a recent paper that I prepared I was able to trace important facets of the early history of DDT testing from 1942 to 1952 through the archives of the Rockefeller Foundation, including the records of the Virus Laboratory that it operated in New York City, the Malaria Experiment Station in Tallahassee, Florida that it funded, the operations of the Rockefeller Foundation Health Commission in newly-liberated North Africa and southern Italy, and a program of typhus and malaria control in Mexico (Stapleton, 1998, pp. 149-58).
This wealth of records is what has brought over 3,000 researchers to the Archive Center in its 23 years of operations, resulting in over 1,000 publications citing the center’s collections. I will now turn to a review of some of this scholarship, referring in particular to Latin American matters.

The past of research in science, medicine, and technology science

Much of what has been done at the Archive Center in the history of science has traced the institutionalization of science or the careers of particular scientists who were heavily funded by Rockefeller philanthropies. Kohler (1991) well represents the state of scholarship regarding Rockefeller philanthropy and science. Kohler focused on the interaction between the staff of the Rockefeller philanthropies and leading research scientists in the 1920s and 1930s which did much to shape science as we know it today.

Kohler’s emphasis was on the development of biology. He pointed out that Rockefeller money pushed biology away from its descriptive strategy, and focus on the organism, toward studies in chemistry and physics that were more objective and mathematical — leading directly toward the interest in molecular biology and genetics that characterizes biology today. Kohler noted that Warren Weaver, the Rockefeller officer most responsible for directing the funding of this transformation of biology, was a mathematician who believed that science in general needed to become more exact.

One of Kohler’s points that I think deserves greater emphasis is that one of Weaver’s strategies was to promote the use of sophisticated laboratory instruments for research, partly in the belief that instruments demanded the precise results that he wanted, but also because sophisticated instruments tended to draw together scientists fromdifferent disciplines in order to effectively analyze the results. Biologists met physicists at the cyclotron, and chemists at the ultracentrifuge and the spectroscope.

The Rockefeller philanthropies helped to fund the creation of these instruments, as well as the differential analyzer (which was a mechanical computer of the 1930s), the Van de Graaff generator (which was important for atomic analysis), and the Tiselius electrophoresis apparatus for protein separation (Kay, 1993, pp. 398-423; Owens, 1986, pp. 63-95). At the Rockefeller University a number of instruments were invented or developed, including the protein synthesizer in the 1960s.

In a paper I presented two years ago at the Society for the History of Technology I showed that one of the unintended consequences of Rockefeller support of the development of instruments in the 1930s was that several became cornerstones of the research leading directly to the creation of the atomic bomb (Stapleton, 1996). Many of the people we associate with the Manhattan Project, such as Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, and Eugene Wigner, had been supported in their graduate or post-graduate studies, or in their laboratories, by the General Education Board, Rockefeller Foundation or the International Education Board (idem, 1997, pp. 51-8). The development of the cyclotron, the Van de Graaff generator, and the ultracentrifuge, all supported by Rockefeller grants, were critical to the creation of the atom bomb.


The history of medicine is well-represented in the existing scholarship coming out of the Archive Center. Much has been made of the Rockefeller philanthropies’ implementation of the recommendations in Abraham Flexner’s 1911 report on medical education in the United States — a report, by the way, that was funded by the Carnegie Corporation (Wheatley, 1989). Flexner recommended that American medical education be improved by strengthening better institutions, providing sufficient salaries for faculties so that they could work full-time, and would not find it necessary to carry on private practice at the same time, and by making clinical and laboratory research standard elements of medical schools.

For thirty years this strategy informed Rockefeller support of medical education not only in the U.S., but globally, and researchers have given us histories of this process in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, China, and Mexico (Bator, 1990; Berliner, 1985; Fisher, 1978, pp. 21-41; Gillespie, 1991; Qiusha Ma, 1995; Ogilvie, 1997, pp. 21-37; Solorzano, 1996; Wheatley, 1989). But what seemed important for American medicine in 1911 was seldom so importantfor other nations: the ‘full-time’ employment of faculty, which was difficult enough to implement in the U.S., proved difficult to impose elsewhere.

Rockefeller’s slavish following of the Flexner mandate created many cases of cross-cultural conflict. The judgment of which institutions were the best was diligently undertaken by Rockefeller officers after site visits; all of the officers were Americans, and they brought their full cultural baggage, including a strong ethnocentrism, to bear on their conclusions (Cueto, 1990a, pp. 229-54).

In Latin America they tended to dismiss any aspect of medical schools that demonstrated French influence, and they were highly critical of any medical training that did not include extensive hospital and clinical experience. This much we know, but more research is needed into the degree to which Rockefeller funding changed Latin American medical schools, and the degree to which they kept their own courses. In addition to histories of institutions, many scholars at the Archive Center have looked at specific areas of medical research, such as tuberculosis, yellow fever, polio, and drug addiction. The induced disease of radiation illness has also been the subject of some recent publications based on Archive Center materials from the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission that studied the long-term effects of radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Lindee, 1994, pp.454-90).

We have had a great deal of work on the history of nursing, in part because that has been the subject of Archive Center conferences in 1981 and 1994, but also because nursing was a major area of Rockefeller activity in the 1920s and 1930s (Condliffe, 1983; Stapleton and Welch, 1994). Most of the publications have dealt in one way or another with the professionalization of nursing, including the setting of standards for nursing education. Relatively little of the work has looked at nursing as a public health activity, even though it was the need for professionals in public health work that drew the Rockefeller philanthropies into the field in the first place.

22 Marcos Cueto (1992, 1990b, 1989) for Peru; Paulo Gadelha (1998), Ilana Löwy (1997, 1996), Luis Castro Santos (1989) and Lina Rodrigues de Faria (1994) for Brazil; Paul Weindling (1997, 1993) for Eastern Europe; Lion Murard and Patrick Zylberman for France; and Soma Hewa (1995) for Sri Lanka, have tried to put Rockefeller philanthropy into a cultural context. The proceedings of a 1991 Archive Center conference on public health and science in Latin America, edited by Marcos Cueto and published as Missionaries of science (1994), is also an important body of work dealing with cultural hegemony. See Birn (1998, pp. 43-76); Birn and Solorzano Ramos (1997, pp. 147-71); Birn (1996a, pp. 203-33; 1996b, pp. 35-56). Public health

Public health, as a sub-field of medicine, has one of the largest literatures based on Archive Center materials. The drama of the campaigns against hookworm, yellow fever, and malaria has excited historians’ interest, beginning with Richard Brown’s (1979), which advanced the thesis that the Rockefeller Foundation was acting largely in the interest of U.S. imperialism. Some recent scholarship has generally followed that framework, including Armando Solorzano’s (1997) book on the Rockefeller Foundation’s early yellow fever work in Mexico.

Other recent scholarship has seen Rockefeller influence less as imperialism than as a matter of cultural hegemony that has beenresisted, manipulated and negotiated by those who chose to accept it. Anne Emanuelle Birn’s several studies of Rockefeller involvement in hookworm, malaria, local health units, and the administration of public health generally in Mexico, have drawn out the subtleties of the cross-cultural relationships.

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One would think there is much on the oil industry and oil refining at the Archive Center, but there is actually very little documentation. We do not hold the Standard Oil corporate archives. Because of Rockefeller investments in other industries, however, there is a scattering of material on U.S. industrial technology, such as railroads, mining, iron and steel, from the 1880s to the 1930s.

What has been almost completely ignored is the role of Rockefeller philanthropic institutions in promoting technological innovation — I believe because few historians associate technological innovation with philanthropy, and because the historians of science and medicine (who logically might take an interest in those innovations) are trained to rank the history of ideas and social history as of greater value than the history of technology.

However, as I noted previously, there has been some work on scientific instrumentation; and some studies have taken into account the technological aspects of public health programs, such as the use of insecticides and the promotion of improved sanitary practices.

The future of research in science, medicine, and technology

I now want to turn to possible future research in science, medicine and technology at the Rockefeller Archive Center. I am venturing into doubtful territory, in part because I do not track the scholarly agenda of every researcher coming to the Center (we now have about 270 researchers a year), but also because the activity of Rockefeller philanthropy is so vast that almost every day we receive inquiries about aspects of the collections that were previously unknown to us.

Moreover, the center continues to open older material for scholarly research, and to take in new material. It is important to point out that since 1984 the Archive Center has acquired the archives of seven institutions that were not directly associated with the Rockefeller family: the archives of the Commonwealth Fund, a philanthropy that supported medical institutions and medical research, and was active in some aspects of public health in the United States and certain British Commonwealth nations; the archives of the Russell Sage Foundation, the first foundation to support social science research in the U.S.; the Markle Foundation, which supported medical research and medical fellowships until 1969, when it moved into promoting public interest in mass communications; the Culpeper Foundation and the Lucille Markey Charitable Trust, both funders of medical research and medical institutions; the Social Science Research Council, which has managed the allocation of funding in the U.S. social sciences since 1923; and most recently, the Foundation for Child Development, which has been an advocate for child services and a funder of research on children’s health. These collections give a researcher the opportunity to do comparative studies in the organization and funding of medicine and the social sciences, among other topics.

At the Archive Center we open new materials according to two standards, first, according to the conditions that the depositing organization has set, and second, according to our level of control. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation has decided that all of its grant-related files are open when they are twenty years old. Before we open material, however, we make sure that it is properly arranged and that we have suitable finding aids so that we can locate material when it is requested, and properly return it after it is used. At the Archive Center we have a continuing struggle to open material as quickly as possible, but we have had staff who are committed to doing that in a timely fashion.

Scientific discovery

Researchers at the center have only begun to sift through the materials we hold that deal with the discovery of DNA and the unlocking of the genetic code, although DNA was identified as the primary genetic code by researchers at the Rockefeller Institute in 1943, and James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, had taken crucial steps in his work while holding a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. This topic has scarcely been explored in our collections.

The shift of the process of scientific discovery from the individual to the team is an extremely important social transformation of science that was encouraged by Rockefeller philanthropy, in partthrough the funding of large-scale instrumentation as I have noted earlier, but also simply through the grant process itself. Warren Weaver and others at the Rockefeller Foundation favored group approaches to research, particularly inter-disciplinary approaches, because they believed that teams advanced the frontier of knowledge more rapidly than solitary workers. Much more needs to be done in this area, and as an instance, I would like to know much more about Theodosius Dobzhansky’s collaboration with Brazilian researchers in his pioneering work on the genetics of Drosophila in the 1940s (Kohler, 1994).

We also need to know much more about the Rockefeller involvement in what Marcos Cueto, among others, has called science on the periphery. In a recent article he outlines the strengths and problems of attempting to undertake leading-edge science outside of the laboratories and dense organizations of the United States and Western Europe. Cueto (1994, pp. 228-46) himself has given us examples in his articles on high-altitude physiology in Peru and Bernardo Houssay’s hormonal research in Argentina. We have some articles on Rockefeller-funded research in Sweden by scholars who identify that nation as on the periphery. The Archive Center has had researchers from China and India in the last year who will give us some perspectives on science in those regions, and we currently have researchers thoroughly investigating our documentation of Rockefeller assistance to science in the Soviet Union, so we can look forward to future publications that may allow us to put the Latin American experience with science on the periphery into comparative perspective. We have not yet had researchers undertake substantial work on science in Africa.

Developments in medicine and public health

In regard to future research in the history of medicine, I believe that the least-studied area of Rockefeller support of medicine, particularly in Latin America, is what is now commonly called health-care delivery. From early on in its work the Rockefeller Foundation demonstrated an interest in the distribution of health care, particulary with the creation of public health dispensaries to test for and combat hookworm and malaria. In the 1930s and 1940s it sponsored the creation of model health units, sometimes called rural health services, for more generalized health care in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Puerto Rico, and El Salvador. There have been some individual studies of these programs, most notably, Anne-Emanuelle Birn’s (1998, pp. 43-76) regarding Mexico, but, so far as I am aware, no one has assessed the overall purpose and design of this program, let alone its impact in health care institutions in those countries.

I also think that studies of medical and public health personnel who received Rockefeller fellowships would be rewarding. The numbers are substantial: just as an example, I counted the national origins of Latin Americans given fellowships from the International Health Division for two different years: in 1930 a total of 24 fellowships were awarded to students from Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and Venezuela; in 1945 a total of 49 fellowships were given to students from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, British West Indies, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. In addition to these fellowships the Rockefeller philanthropies gave out a number of travel grants, sometimes called traveling fellowships, which were not for formal study, but rather for visiting institutions and field projects, and for obtaining specific training.

The purpose of these fellowships was to support the avowed aims of the International Health Board, International Education Board, and Rockefeller Foundation to create an elite of change-inducing officials in each nation. A passage in the Rockefeller Foundation’s annual report for 1930 summarizes this strategy:

Experience in all countries indicates that one of the most important things in public health work is the vision, enthusiasm, and energy of leaders. In nearly every progressive country there are one or two figures that personify the progress in public health. These are supported by a host of younger men less heralded but no less important. One of the factors in bringing about the peaceful social revolution represented by the upswing in public health work ... has been the invigorating contacts made by various leaders, young and old, due to fellowships, the travel of health officials, and the interchange of health personnel...

The Rockefeller officers sent their fellows to what they believed were the most advanced institutions in the world — usually Johns Hopkins, Harvard, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, or the Rockefeller Institute, but depending on the specialty, sometimes the London School of Medicine and Tropical Hygiene, or the Rockefeller-funded malaria experiment station in Rome. We need to know more about the relationship between the training the fellows received, and the careers they had when they returned home, and the effect they had on the institutions and government agencies they served. We need to know how much the hegemonic thesis applies — to what degree were these fellows conduits for ideas and techniques to or from the periphery?

Technological innovations

As I mentioned earlier, the technological aspect of Rockefeller philanthropy has been little examined. There are a number of revealing technological trails that could be followed by historians. For this audience, one of the more interesting would be Nelson Rockefeller’s fascination with technological transfer. We hold a portion of his papers documenting his service as coordinator of Inter-American Affairs from 1940 to 1945, when he was responsible for maintaining and improving political relations between the United States and Latin America (Bales, 1992). He developed an extensive program of propaganda and aid which included technical assistance for public health programs through a Division of Health and Sanitation, and later through the Institute of Inter-American Affairs, which continued operations until 1953. The bulk of the records of these organizations are in the National Archives of the United States.

After Rockefeller left the coordinator’s office he decided to create philanthropic agencies to continue and expand some of the Latin American programs. First he founded the American International Association for Economic and Social Development (known as AIA), to promote health and social change, and then he created a corporate form, the International Basic Economy Corporation (known as IBEC), to form businesses that he and his advisors conceived of as promoting a better life for Latin Americans. IBEC created a vast range of enterprises, mostly in Brazil and Venezuela, including supermarkets, milk and fish processing and distribution facilities, the manufacture of concrete housing, agricultural equipment rentals, hybrid corn seed production, poultry breeding, and helicopter pesticide spraying. A history of IBEC was published in 1968 which sketched out these operations, but only from a business and economic point of view (Broehl Jr., 1968). A relatively unsatisfactory history of AIA also was published (Dalrymple, 1968). Both histories were written long before the documentation in Nelson Rockefeller’s papers was available so the numerous fascinating technological stories relating to IBEC and AIA have scarcely been told.

Just after founding AIA and IBEC Nelson Rockefeller began serving as an advisor to U.S. president Truman, and in 1950 Truman made him chairman of the International Development Advisory Board, charged with defining the new Point IV Program of international technical assistance by the United States. We hold the records of Rockefeller’s direction of that the board for several years, although the records of the organization itself are in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Another technological trail that could be followed is associated with the Green Revolution. After trials of the new hybrid maize in Mexico and in the latter 1940s, the Rockefeller agronomists foundthat the new agricultural regime required a wide range of associated technologies in order to be highly successful, including insecticides, fertilizers, and seed storage facilities that kept the seed dry and free from insects and fungus. The records at the Archive Center document thoroughly the attempts to identify and adapt these technologies to each new environment, beginning with Mexico and Central America. Although the Green Revolution has been criticized for being based on sophisticated technology that could only be afforded by the middle class, put the peasant class in debt and radically altered the environment, there has been little research at the Archive Center on these technological aspects of the revolution.

Another barely studied area of technology represented in the collections at the Archive Center is radio, television, and cinematic technology. The Rockefeller Foundation was deeply involved in studies of radio and film from the late 1930s into the 1940s, primarily because it was interested in how these media were being used to educate the public, or in the case of Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, to spread propaganda. Most of these studies were done as a result of grants made to Princeton and Harvard universities, but much of the cinematic work was done at the Museum of Modern Art. A study of this topic would draw on the Nelson A. Rockefeller Papers, both because he was president of the museum when the project began, and because when he was coordinator of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, he directed the use of radio and films to spread information about the war effort of the United States as well as improvements in public health.


The records at the Rockefeller Archive Center represents an enormous resource for historians, a resource for scholarship that will deepen our understanding of the world that has been created in the 20th century. This world, with its ever-heavier reliance on science, medicine, and technology to provide the underpinning for an increasing population, a denser network of communication, and an ever-growing expectation of technological innovation, has been shaped in significant part by the organizations represented in the Rockefeller Archive Center’s collections. The door to the center is open; please come for a research visit.

Presented at Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 1998.

Darwin H. Stapleton,

Director, Rockefeller Archive Center,

15 Dayton Avenue, Sleepy Hollow, NY USA 10591


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  • Gadelha, Paulo 1998 Conforming strategies of public health campaigns to disease specificity and national contexts: Rockefeller Foundations early campaigns against hookworm and malaria in Brazil. Parassitologia, 40.
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  • 1
    Let me briefly summarize the history of the Archive Center that brought these collections together in one place. John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the Standard Oil Company in 1870 and thus of the family fortune, was a very careful record-keeper (Chernow, 1998). He was a trained accountant, and he was a devout Baptist who believed that his wealth was given to him by God and it was his responsibility to use it properly. He could not have a clear conscience unless he kept a careful record of every cent expended, and unless he gave the biblically-required one-tenth to charity. He also had to be assured that one-tenth of his income was well-spent on people or organizations that genuinely needed assistance. Our records therefore begin in 1855 with John D. Rockefeller’s personal and office account books, which list every dime expended; the number of account books dramatically increases after 1879 when he set up a personal staff to manage his affairs. The tradition of keeping account books has been passed down to at least the fourth generation of Rockefellers.
    The pattern of record-keeping was reinforced about 1910 when the Standard Oil monopoly was under attack in the American courts, and it became necessary for the Rockefeller office to be able to locate documents easily. An index system was created then that later was a model for other indexes that controlled information in the records of the new Rockefeller philanthropies. Those indexes, which are held at the Archive Center, are still useful tools for locating information in the archives.
  • 2
    Marcos Cueto (1992, 1990b, 1989) for Peru; Paulo Gadelha (1998), Ilana Löwy (1997, 1996), Luis Castro Santos (1989) and Lina Rodrigues de Faria (1994) for Brazil; Paul Weindling (1997, 1993) for Eastern Europe; Lion Murard and Patrick Zylberman for France; and Soma Hewa (1995) for Sri Lanka, have tried to put Rockefeller philanthropy into a cultural context. The proceedings of a 1991 Archive Center conference on public health and science in Latin America, edited by Marcos Cueto and published as
    Missionaries of science (1994), is also an important body of work dealing with cultural hegemony.

Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    06 Jan 2004
  • Date of issue
    Feb 1999
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