Science Spawned by Foundations

Prewar and Immediate Postwar Philanthropy

For the first half of the 20th Century, US medical research in universities and hospitals depended mainly on a few private foundations.  Early in the century, private philanthropy was the main support for health research, because the pharmaceutical business in the United States was just becoming a science-oriented enterprise and the federal government was not yet a major force in biomedical research.  The federal government was a strong presence in agricultural research, technological standards, and geological sciences ¹ but it was not the mainstay of health research.  

In 1902, the private Rockefeller Foundation spent more than $1 million in medical research, for example, compared to the $50,000 1904 federal appropriation for the Hygienic Laboratory, the forerunner of today’s NIH. ² Large private foundations, particularly the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, supported most academic research in all fields, including medicine and biology. ³

The US Department of Agriculture is the “grand-daddy” of government science agencies, and it has long been central to US research on life sciences pertinent to crop plants and livestock. 4 USDA pioneered in the federal patronage for research and has been a major force for a century and a half.  Going into World War II, health research had no program of comparable magnitude to USDA science.  

Beginning in the 1930s, pharmaceutical companies mounted substantial private R&D efforts.  The pharmaceutical industry was increasingly science-driven and drew on academic health research, but companies mainly funded work in their own laboratories. 5

Large Private Foundations

Going into World War II, the Carnegie Corporation (despite its name, a nonprofit philanthropy) and the Rockefeller Foundation were the largest supporters of U.S. health research, joined later by the Guggenheim Foundation.  These large private foundations drew off their private endowments and did not need to appeal to donors day by day.  While grassroots charities such as the March of Dimes supported research directed at specific diseases, the large private foundations focused on fundamental biological processes.

The Rockefeller Foundation was particularly important in the origins of modern biomedical research.  One of its officers, Warren Weaver, was a mathematician whose interests turned to biology.  He cultivated a new style of biological and medical research, which carried into the war years.  His approach was to ground biology in the rigors of mathematics and the physical sciences.  He noted “there is coming into being a new branch of science—molecular biology—which is beginning to uncover many secrets concerning the ultimate units of the living cell.” 6 Weaver’s was the first use of the term “molecular biology,” appearing in his section of the 1938 Rockefeller Foundation annual report.7,8,9

Until the war, the Rockefeller Foundation was the Main Event in basic biology, particularly molecular biology, with Warren Weaver its most important impresario, not only in the United States but also in England.10 But as the federal government came to the fore after the war, the Foundation chose to move on.  In 1951, Weaver presented a plan to redirect Rockefeller Foundation funds from molecular biology to other purposes, and turned his own attention to agricultural development in Latin America, because (against his advice and fervent desire) federal dollars had supplanted Foundation funds as the central pillar for basic medical research.11

The Picture Today

Large private foundations have not disappeared from the scene; quite the contrary. Three of the largest private philanthropies in the world focus on health R&D.  In the United Kingdom, the Wellcome Trust is quite the equal partner to the UK national government in health research, and played a strong leadership role in the “public” human genome project.12 In the United States, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) expended over $$889 million in 2010, including $738 million for HHMI scientific research13,making its budget comparable in size to a middle-sized NIH institute. HHMI has a 50-year history, but its funding was limited until the Howard Hughes estate was apportioned by a Delaware court in the mid-1980s. At that point, it became an endowment for nonprofit biomedical research.  HHMI’s signature has been support of molecular biology, education, and basic biology in focused areas: neuroscience, immunology, genetics, and structural biology.  It funds an elite corps of investigators, starting in the United States and more recently branching into international science.  

In some areas, such as cancer research, local private philanthropy plays a major role.  Most of the oldest and largest cancer research centers in the nation (such as M. D. Anderson in Houston, Memorial-Sloan Kettering in New York City, Roswell Park in Buffalo, Fred Hutchinson in Seattle, Dana Farber in Boston, and Fox Chase in Philadelphia) were already well established even as the academic health centers with which they are now affiliated grew up around them.  Cancer centers retain considerable institutional autonomy even today, based in part on dollars that flow from major individual donors, regional charities, state legislatures, and elaborate fundraising networks.

In global health, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become a hugely important presence.  Dorsey, et al., estimated that foundations accounted for $4.3 billion in biomedical research expenditures in 2007, the last year for which they could gather complete data, or just over 4 percent of the nation’s total.14


¹ Dupree, A. (1986). Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press.

² Strickland, S. P. (1989). The Story of the NIH Grants Programs. Latham, MD, University Press of America. op. cit. pp. 5-6

³ Kohler, R. (1991). Partners in Science: Foundations and Natural Scientists, 1900-1945. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

4 Dupree, A (1986).

5 Swann, J. (1988). Academic Scientists and the Pharmaceutical Industry: Cooperative Research in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press.

6 Weaver, W. (1938). Molecular Biology. The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report 1938, pg. 203New York, Rockefeller Foundation: 203-221.

7 Weaver, W. (1938).

8 Weaver, W. (1970). “Molecular Biology: Origin of the Term (letter).” Science 170(6 November): 591-592.

9Glass, B. (1991). “The Rockefeller Foundation: Warren Weaver and the Launching of Molecular Biology.” Quarterly Review of Biology 66(No. 3, September): 303-308.

10 Perhaps most famously, the Rockefeller Foundation was the main initial funder of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, where Francis Crick and James Watson were working when they discovered the double helical structure of DNA. The laboratory was, anomalously, in the Cavendish Laboratory of Physics, and was later funded in part by the UK Medical Research Council, a tale recounted by Soraya de Chadarevian in Designs for Life: Molecular Biology after World War II, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
The role of Rockefeller, and Weaver, is chronicled in Kohler, op. cit., and in much greater detail in Lily E. Kay, The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New Biology (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993). Whether Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation have been given too much credit for the origins of molecular biology, and whether their policies also concentrated power unfairly and channeled it unproductively (e.g., by failing to sustain promising lines of research) has generated a literature in the history of science, summarized by Pnina G. Abir-Am, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Rise of Molecular Biology, Nature Reviews 3 (January): 65-70, 2002.

11 Kohler, op. cit. and Kay, op. cit. For Weaver’s continued involvement in molecular biology, see esp. Kay, introduction and Chapter 7 and later chapters. A caution in interpreting this role is found in Abir-Am, op. cit.

12 A first-hand account of this role is described in John Sulston and Georgina Ferry’s The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human Genome (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2002).Sulston, J. F., G (2002). The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome. London, Bantam Publishers. The Wellcome Trust has also assessed its substantial role in human genetics over a two-decade period 1990-2009, during which it devoted £740 million, or roughly 10 percent of its total expenditures, to the field. Wellcome Trust (2010). Human Genetics 1990-2009: Portfolio Review. London, UK, Wellcome Trust.

13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2011). Howard Hughes Medical Institute 2010 Annual Report. Chevy Chase, MD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

14 Dorsey, E. R., J. de Roulet, et al. (2010). “Funding of US biomedical research, 2003-2008.” JAMA 303(2): 137-143.