Nothing so epitomizes the character of Frederick T. Gates as the speech he is recorded as having delivered to the board of the Rockefeller Foundation upon his retirement in 1923. No manuscript exists, but its substance came to me through the vivid memories of two men who were there, Mr. Raymond Fosdick, later president of the foundation, and Dr. Alan Gregg, later director for the medical sciences, and it went like this.
Flaunting his still magnificent head of white hair and shaking his fist at a “somewhat startled but respectfully attentive board,” he thundered in the tones of the thousands of Baptist sermons he had reluctantly attended in his youth:
“When you die and come to approach the judgment of almighty God, when you stand before St. Peter in supplication at the gates of heaven, what do you think he will demand of you? Do you for an instant presume that he will inquire into your petty failures and your trivial virtues?—Will he ask, ‘How did you do as a husband for your loving and dutiful wife?’ or, ‘How fully did you inspire your sons, how carefully nurture and protect your daughters?’—As a captain of industry, How did you discharge your duties to stockholders and employees?’ Or to those of you who serve in the noble profession of medicine, How did you carry out your sacred obligations to the lame, the halt, and the dying?’ No! no indeed! He will brush all these matters to one side, and he will ask but one question: How did you do as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation?!’’’
It was hard even for my gurus in the Rockefeller Foundation to tell this story without a trace of the kind of smile that was said to flicker over the faces of the augurs as they read the entrails during the later days of the Roman Empire. Time had indeed begun to change before Gates retired; T. S. Eliot had published The Wasteland a year before, and Scott Fitzgerald, with his This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, was setting a very different tone to American culture. Nevertheless, any objective reading of the Gates record must leave a predominant feeling of awe and admiration, even if it is tinged with envy for the luck to be born in simpler, more certain times.
To begin, then, at the beginning, Frederick T. Gates was born on the western side of the Nanticoke Valley not far from the present Broome County Airport and ten miles north of the Susquehanna River at eight o’clock in the morning on July 2, 1853. His father, Granville Gates, and his mother, Sarah Jane (Bowers), had taken second-floor rooms in the so-called Dudley Slosson House, about two miles from Grandfather Gates in one direction and Grandfather Bowers in the other. His father had a job as a minor county functionary and was reading medicine on the side. Three years later he gave up the idea of a medical career and entered the Baptist ministry with a parish at Lambs Corners, three miles north of the Gates home. In 1856 the family removed to Centre Lisle, eight miles north of Lambs Corners. From 1857 to 1862 they lived in the very comfortable Edwards House, but the economy of the town, which depended heavily on the hemlock forest to supply both its lumbering and its tanning industries, declined sharply in the fifties and sixties. The family therefore moved to Motts Corners, now Brookton, six miles from Ithaca, then to Caroline, and finally to Ovid for the years 1866 to 1869.
Gates’s childhood seems to have been fairly typical for upstate New York in the mid-century. The school terms were brief; the students of all ages were herded together in the same room; and discipline was strict. Indeed, the thing that Gates remembered most clearly about his school days was the “torture” of confinement in a district school. On the positive side, he recounts his life-long love of the sight of varnished wood, which he later used in large amounts when he built his home in Montclair. Rather curiously, the original stimulus for this fixation was a highly polished boxwood ruler with which the teacher rapped the knuckles of delinquent students. Perhaps more important, but listed second by Gates himself, was his love of music, first aroused by the beautiful voice of a teacher named Cornelius Lusk. Finally, Gates was always grateful for the fact that his teacher, partly with the use of the ruler just described, managed to convert him from his natural left-handedness. Indeed, he later carried on this tradition by correcting one of his own sons who naturally tried to skip stones with his left hand.
Frederick Gates was apparently a sensitive child and remembered to his dying day such incidents as the sight of the basin full of blood extracted from the jugular vein of a sick horse, and the eerie Ca-Chug, Ca-Chug sound of the hydraulic ram which pumped the water for the farm across the way. Apparently, he was not informed of its mundane function and was allowed to speculate on its possibly supernatural origin. There was also a cemetery about a half mile north of the house, and he was a spectator at many funerals. Indeed, he never got over the sight of a particularly ghastly corpse which a thoughtful uncle helped the three-year-old boy to see, boosting him over the shoulders of the other spectators.
For those who grew up under the shield of modern medicine which Gates did so much to promote, it may be well to recall that in the fifties and sixties of the last century death was a very common visitor in even the smallest town. In addition to the numerous funerals mentioned above, Gates tells how the local coffin maker, Deacon Woodworth, once asked him to lie down in a coffin being built for one of his classmates, so as to make sure that the size was right. When Gates recounted his afternoon with the deacon at the dinner table that night, Gates’s mother, gravely concerned by the diphtheria epidemic sweeping through the town, was not amused.
Whether or not these incidents were important as background for his later consuming passion for the advancement of medicine is not, of course, easy to say. But he felt they were worth recording and, if only for this reason, I do so too.
Another pervading influence was formal dogmatic religion. Gates was proud of his Puritan and Calvinist ancestors, most of whom had come to this continent before 1685 and followed congregational forms and doctrines. By 1790, however, his direct forebears on the Gates side had been converted to the Baptist faith. Thereafter, the family held to the rigid tenets of this fundamentalist church until Gates himself turned increasingly liberal and ultimately nonsectarian in his views. It seems clear that the rigidities typical of rural nineteenth-century America pushed him forcibly in other directions. Indeed, Gates goes so far as to say in his autobiography that he couldn’t remember anything from the six years of sermons he heard before reaching the age of nine, except for one with a story in it about fishing poles. He hated Sunday school even more than church, since he was forced to learn verses from the Bible, not one of which he could recall later on. The following excerpts from the five or six pages devoted to his early spiritual training may give some idea of the effect of the good old religion on many thoughtful and sensitive children:
“Sunday was a punishment throughout. As it was the Lord s Day, we could not love the Lord who made it or any of His ways. The Puritans had improved on the loose and negligent Moses, for while he had forbidden work on the Sabbath, they forbade play also. Not a plaything was permitted us on Sunday, either indoors or out, and so Sunday was a day of misery.
“I’ve had a large family Bible in pink leather with illustrations. On Sunday afternoons I was reduced for entertainment to these pictures. I presume they were all prints of celebrated old paintings. These pictures gave me my first deep impressions of religion. I remember many of them: Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent in Eden, Adam and Eve slinking out of Paradise threatened by a fiery sword, Cain with a club, the dead Abel at his feet, the flood overwhelming the wicked with furious waves,. . . the beautiful boy Joseph being sold into Egypt by his brutal and wicked brethren, Pharaoh and his hosts being overwhelmed in the Red Sea,. . . Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the lions standing around amiably, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego coolly promenading in the fiery furnace, David holding high the severed head of Goliath, the cutting off of Samson’s hair while he sleeps, Samson breaking the pillars of the Philistine house of revelry, and bringing it down on himself and the revelers, Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, the stoning of Stephen, and a series of terrible pictures in the Apocalypse…These and other early impressions associated religion with tragedy, crime, terror, and death, with tiresome lessons, long and meaningless church services, a Sunday amounting almost to solitary confinement, a catechism of jaw-breaking, meaningless words…
“The orthodoxy of Calvin and Knox runs athwart our best and noblest impulses and tends to suppress the natural instinct of right- minded persons to be friends with God, to serve society, and cheerfully and faithfully to discharge the duties of life. The redeeming feature of Calvinism was that, while professed, it was seldom obeyed or really believed…
“I suppose the belligerence of my present revolt against orthodoxy—not the revolt, but the energy of it—…. is to be traced mainly to the sufferings it inflicted on my childhood and youth, the ogres it set before me in the name of religion, its tendency to thwart and crush in the young the natural impulses of the being whom God made and pronounced good…”
More positive and creative influences were found informally outside the church and school. For example, he was particularly grateful to his parents for discussing family problems in front of the children. In this way, he early learned that life was a serious business, and that there were problems of all kinds to be thought about and solved. For a Baptist minister in a small town in upstate New York, one of the most pressing problems was of course financial. Gates estimated, for example, that the family’s income usually varied between $250 and $350 and never exceeded $500 a year. Nevertheless, by strict economy and careful planning, the family maintained a reasonable standard and never suffered privation in such essentials as food and housing. Indeed, according to the custom of the time, Gates’s father never appeared in public without his broadcloth suit and silk hat. Good books were available, even if in minimal numbers, and Gates remembered with particular pleasure the magazine Our Young Folks which, judging from the comments of one’s own fathers and grandfathers, played an enormous role in bringing up the youth of an earlier America. So devoted was Gates to reading on his own that he specifically and rather curiously states that parents should avoid from the first reading aloud to their children but should see to it that good books and magazines are available to be picked up by the children so inclined. In view of his later career and the general atmosphere of the times, it may be worth remarking that he remembered a story entitled “Winning His Way” as the “first really fascinating story for children I ever read and one of the very few works of fiction that have lived in my memory.” More unexpected, perhaps, was the lesson learned at the so-called Miller House in Caroline, where the Gates family had rooms for some years. It appears that Mrs. Miller’s father had been a somewhat woolly-headed inventor, interested, among other things, in perpetual-motion machines. Some of his early models were available for inspection in the attic and, as Gates somewhat wryly remarks, “this experience and that of my Grandfather Bowers prompted me in later life to turn down all patents sent to Mr. Rockefeller for support.” Four terrible and tragic incidents within a few miles of Gates’s home had a considerable effect on his attitude towards life and may have conditioned his thinking about how to approach and solve the problems of living. A thoroughly respectable retired farmer committed suicide; a mother poisoned two daughters; a notably unstable, obviously paranoid religious fanatic who had disturbed the Gates family on several occasions suddenly murdered his wife; and a father, left with his two children while the mother was visiting relatives, apparently murdered both of them, although Gates found the incident so painful that he does not say explicitly exactly what happened. These incidents, so similar to those which troubled the ancient House of Atreus, may, among other things, correct the common view that life in a rural, simpler America was less productive of stress and nervous instability than is our present urban civilization. It seems not unlikely that these events may have helped lead Gates to the opinion that a great many of the world’s most grievous troubles are due to derangements of normal human physiology, correctable, at least in principle, by advances in the science of medicine.
His conscious response was to emphasize the hereditary factor in mental instability, and he closes his account of these incidents with an exhortation to his descendants to be very careful whom they marry. This is coupled with a self-confident analysis of all his identifiable forebears, in whom he could find no single case of either mental instability or deficiency. Viewed from this distance, this passage illustrates Gates’s ability to grasp a single important issue, focus his attention intensely upon it, and more or less neglect complicating factors.
One final incident of Gates’s childhood is worth recording, partly for the light it throws on his character, and partly because of the way it illuminates the informal selection system which insured that a certain percentage of the country’s bright boys and girls would go on to high school and college. One day when he was about twelve years old, Gates noticed that, when a pencil came loose at the top of his desk and rolled down the sloping top, it made a noise. He puzzled about this for some time and then asked his teacher how it came about that a rolling pencil produced a sound. The teacher replied that she had no idea, but the very fact that Gates asked such a question suggested to her that he should make every effort to complete his high school education and go on to college “when he grew up.” Gates himself recognized this incident as his first adventure into scientific research. But in other respects, he thought he was very little different from the other boys in the school—more docile and well behaved perhaps and therefore liked by most of his teachers, but in no way outstanding intellectually. One reflects that there may have been advantages in a world in which teachers recognized something unusual about little boys who asked why pencils rolling down desk tops made a noise.
In 1866, when Gates was thirteen years old, the family removed to Ovid, a town situated on the middle of the plateau which separates Lake Cayuga from Lake Seneca. It was not very satisfactory from the professional or economic point of view, because the church was almost wholly dependent on one wealthy old lady who died shortly after their arrival. For the young Frederick, however, it was a matter of consequence, for it resulted in his entering the coed high school known as the East Genisee (sic) Conference Seminary. Here the teaching and social behavior were of a form which he had never seen before. “The year,” he said, “was the vestibule of the better social and intellectual life in which it was my good fortune ever after to live.” After a year, however, the family moved again, this time westward to a Baptist mission in northeast Kansas. Gates continued his education in the so-called Highland University, about ten miles from the family home where he was so homesick that he managed to find his way home every weekend whether on foot or horseback, a fairly grueling experience during winter blizzards.
In order to pay off the mortgage on what Gates characterized as the too-costly home” his father bought in the rich Kansas prairie, it became necessary for all members of the family to earn outside money. At age fifteen, Gates gave up his work at the University in order to teach school for two years.
He also clerked for a while in a store and bank. On one occasion when the president of the bank was trying to straighten out a previous commitment, he concluded that one of his letters should be predated by about ten days. But when he asked his aid to make this alteration in the record, Gates said that he simply couldn’t do it. The banker argued that since Gates was simply taking orders, he would be free of any guilt which might attach to the transaction. But Gates, who much later in 1926 felt he was probably wrong in his intransigence, maintained his position, and the banker did not force the issue. Instead, Gates’s responsibilities were rapidly increased.
Gates was quite conscious of the fact that these and other experiences in business not only matured his character but gave him a competent grasp of the world of affairs which prepared him for many of the tasks which Mr. Rockefeller would later ask him to undertake. In between his commercial ventures, he prepared himself for college at Highland “University” where the atmosphere was peculiarly noncompetitive; no grades were given, but everybody worked hard. Although in many ways Gates must be ranked as a conservative, his attitude towards education puts him squarely in the progressive bracket. Indeed, almost any of the remarks in his autobiography on this subject would earn him a place on a White House list of overly permissive educators.
One extracurricular activity in particular opened Gates’s eyes to his own unusual rhetorical capacities and the pleasure which might be derived from worldly success. Almost accidentally, he found himself taking an important role in a debate which had been arranged with a neighboring institution. He worked extremely hard in marshalling his arguments and preparing himself for the public presentation. The effort was crowned with success and attracted a good deal of local attention.
Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in the University of Rochester, having spent something in the order of 16 hours a day for 90 days preparing himself in Greek, which was then required for admission.
Three things of importance happened to him at Rochester. The first was his intimate exposure to its president, M. B. Anderson. Anderson was an unusual personality, and his behavior, as described by Gates, contrasts sharply with that of college presidents today. He was regularly visible walking across the campus, stopping to talk with students, most of whom he knew by name; and he had the habit of asking individual students into his study for long talks, not only on scholarly subjects, but on life in general. Indeed, he seems to have performed all the functions expected now of professors, deans, guidance counselors, and psychiatrists. Apparently, he did all this while maintaining a typical nineteenth-century position of personal dignity and distance which commanded the respect, if not indeed the awe, of his students. In later years and after meeting many of the first-class minds of his generation, Gates was to observe that Anderson was actually a man of relatively limited outlook and intellectual qualifications. Nevertheless, at the time he provided an effective introduction to the intellectual enterprise.
Rochester also served to develop the positive aspects of Gates’s turn towards liberal theology which had begun in such a negative way during his childhood. In reaction to the “idolatry of general concepts” he found in the divinity school, he turned increasingly to the teachings of Christ as they bore directly on the welfare of his fellow men. In a long paragraph summarizing these new views, he defines and develops the idea that civilization
“…is life under the law of sacrifice and sacrifice and right voluntarily obeyed…In proportion as a man acts for pay, whether for money or fame or any other valuable thing, he is contemptible.”
A nineteenth-century descendant of Anglo-Saxons, Gates had no doubt about the superiority of the people of “the dozen counties grouped around Cambridge University and London.” But, by a curious twist, he was able to use the northern European tradition to improve the status of women. For example, he quotes Dr. Anderson as follows:
“Dr. A. attributes the ascendance of the Teutonic races over the rest of the world largely to the honor and even reverence in which they have traditionally held their women.”
Dr. Anderson then went on to recommend that in their future lives his students adopt the practice of consulting their wives in all things, since women have a way of looking at human situations quite different from that of men, and in many respects more penetrating. Although these eminent Victorians would fall rather short of the standards set by present-day feminists, they were far from simple-minded “male chauvinist pigs.”
As his interest in orthodoxy waned, Gates’s social consciousness gained in explicitness, and he developed a sense of duty of almost Ciceronian proportions. “We are bound,” he says, “to cultivate and develop the powers God has given us to their fullest. We are responsible, not alone for what we are, but for all we can be, for what we might have been.” He then goes on to extend this ethics of duty to a discussion of the professions, pointing out that lawyers, ministers, and doctors have particular duties to their clients, parishioners, and patients which must be observed with particular devotion over and above the call of duty as practiced by lay individuals.
The quotations given above are taken largely from Gates’s letters and purport to be his memory of statements made by President Anderson. But it is clear that they are really statements about his own growing personal philosophy.
There is some danger, I suppose, that an audience of modern young people may have difficulty believing that such statements are “for real,” especially from one who spent most of his later life serving one of the world’s richest men and a man who had assembled his fortune partly by methods now regarded as unethical and illegal. But I am old enough to have known many individuals of the same background, and I am convinced that most of them believed what they said about duty and service.
Upon graduating from college, Gates was by no means sure about a career. Although he liked the law, he tended to dismiss it on the grounds that there were too many lawyers already. His success as a teacher made it inevitable that he consider some branch of education, but he dismissed this also. He had found teachers and professors too narrow in outlook and, furthermore, as we would say today, they were not close enough to the action. “The teacher stands at the gateway of life and ushers others into the promised land but, like Moses, can never enter it himself.” Almost faute de mieux, then, he followed his father into the ministry. He is quite frank in his autobiography about not having felt a divine call. He simply reached a pragmatic decision that “he could do the most good in the ministry,” and entered the Rochester Theological Seminary in 1877. There he found the average level of intelligence and cultivation below that of his college class, but only “two or three really bad men”; and these were “sifted out” before graduation.
On the whole, he found the curriculum of little use. Of more immediate utility was his service as visiting preacher in the churches surrounding Rochester during the last two years of his attendance at the school.
His first position after graduation was in what he candidly described as the poorer of the two Baptist congregations in Minneapolis. Gates threw himself into its development and, when he left a few years later, it was on a sound financial footing and had grown substantially in numbers. Never very much interested in orthodox theology, Gates aimed his sermons at developing a sense of service among his parishioners. As he looked back later, he felt that he had probably been rather too uncompromising in the standards he attempted to require of his first flock. Nevertheless, the formula worked; perhaps simply because, as Gates modestly puts it, “I was fortunate in having a defenseless and docile people”; perhaps also because of his unusual qualities of leadership.
From these earliest days, however, Gates was obviously destined to be more a man of affairs than a scholar or pastor, and he soon attracted the attention of the business leaders of Minneapolis by his skillful handling of the finances of his congregation. This led to his first role as adviser on the philanthropies of wealthy men. Mr. Pillsbury of the Pillsbury Milling Company consulted him about his intention to leave approximately $200,000 to the Owatonna Academy, a local Baptist secondary school. After looking into the matter, Gates quickly concluded that an individual gift with no strings attached would not effectively raise the level of the school. For one thing, he had observed a general indifference to the welfare of the Academy among Baptists in the state. He therefore proposed that Mr. Pillsbury begin by offering $50,000 to be matched by $50,000 from the other Baptists in the state, remarking that this course
“. . . would inform the state of the value of a good academy; it would commit the state to the care of the Academy; and it would give immediate efficiency and respectability to the work of the Academy.”
Mr. Pillsbury was evidently impressed by the soundness of the advice and perhaps even more by the perspicacity of the adviser. In any event, Gates was shortly offered the job of stumping the state to raise the necessary matching money. He raised over $60,000 in less than six weeks and was elected principal of the Academy. Almost at once his choice became complicated by the offer of the presidency of the University of Rochester. It took very little time to decide against both positions on the grounds that neither offered very much opportunity for accomplishment.
Instead, Gates became active in the American Baptist Education Society, which was being developed at the time to raise the standards in its numerous secondary schools and colleges. He began by sending out a detailed questionnaire and opening a personal correspondence with the responsible officer of every Baptist institution without exception in the country.’ Though obviously arduous, this pattern of operation proved successful, and he later recommended it on several other occasions. Notably, in 1903 he urged that the General Education Board begin its activities by a thorough survey of existing educational institutions throughout the South, and he strongly advocated a similar review of all the medical missions in China before deciding on a program for the China Medical Board.
Interestingly enough, he found this kind of activity, which involved a great deal of traveling, as well as correspondence, much more appropriate to his personality than the life of a parish pastor. As evidence, he remarks that his weight rose from 134 to 190 in a little over a year. As a result of his survey, he concluded that the new society should turn away from support of the little rural academies and colleges, which he regarded as doomed for lack of what we would now call critical mass. He also ruled out a proposal for an all-American university in Washington, D.C. In his own forthright words:
“The city of Washington was not, is not now, and I think is not likely to become suitable for a seat of learning. Its population was mostly clerks, there was little permanent local wealth, small local pride or enterprise or public spirit.”
He also was unenthusiastic about a proposal for an expenditure of $20 million on a university in New York City which had been favored for some time by a group led by Dr. Strong, the head of the Rochester Theological Seminary.
What did attract his enthusiasm was the establishment “of a powerful college, to become later a university, on the ruins of the old University of Chicago.” In a letter to John D. Rockefeller, which is one of the earliest contacts between the two men, he sensed that Mr. Rockefeller was doubtful about going full blast into an enterprise so uncertain, as he was then being urged to do by Professor Harper of Yale and Dr. Goodspeed of the Baptist Association. Gates pointed out that it would not be necessary to start all at once at the university level. On the contrary, he raised the possibility of establishing a first-class college, leaving the later options open.
“I did not believe that Baptists needed a great university at that time, either in Chicago or elsewhere. Certainty, it would be unwise to put vast sums of money into a university, to the neglect of our needy colleges and academies throughout the country.
Although the second part of this sentence sounds flatly contradictory to the conclusion recorded a few pages earlier in his autobiography, the letter succeeded in getting Mr. Rockefeller to “come out of his shell,” and he invited Gates and Mr. Henry Lyman Morehouse, for many years the corresponding secretary and moving spirit of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, to lunch with him in New York. More significantly, he invited Gates to accompany him back to Cleveland on the train. Gates quickly sensed that Harper, Goodspeed, and others had been pressing Mr. Rockefeller rather too hard for a large contribution to the proposed University of Chicago and that Mr. Rockefeller felt it necessary to build defenses against these importunate men.
He therefore adopted a more deliberate, softer sell. After a series of conversations and maneuvers which included a well-managed feasibility study by a number of distinguished educators, Mr. Rockefeller agreed to an original gift of $600,000 to be matched by local contributions of $400,000.
With the encouraging interest of Mr. Rockefeller so expressed, Gates moved to Chicago, where he spent a year raising money from the Chicago community. Although his year of full-time service was successful in the sense that more than the required amount of money was raised, Gates found the experience most unsatisfactory. “My life has been a happy one,” he later wrote.
“I could not say of a single year that it was unhappy, but I will say of this year that it is the last that I would choose for living over, the nearest approach to unhappiness, the fullest of distaste and anxiety.”
At this point, we must leave the fascinating story of the further development of the University of Chicago in the capable hands of another upstate New York Baptist, Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed, who early joined the faculty and in 1916 produced the definitive history of the exciting early days. Gates, though less closely associated, as time went on, never lost his interest and served on the board for fourteen years, during which time Mr. Rockefeller personally contributed $35 million to the rapidly growing institution.
During the two years of the negotiations leading to the gift to the University, Mr. Rockefeller had also made increasing use of the Baptist Education Society and of its head Mr. Gates to administer his rapidly growing list of philanthropies. In September 1891, Gates moved his operations to New York at Mr. Rockefeller’s request and within a few months he had exchanged his position with the Society for one on Mr. Rockefeller’s personal staff.
He was clearly gratified by Mr. Rockefeller’s confidence and, as he says, welcomed this opportunity for usefulness. In what must have been a very rare moment of self-doubt, however, he remarked that he worried somewhat about what the various petitioners would think of him. “I saw myself cut off from disinterested friendships and, almost of necessity, a center of intrigue and dislike.” However, “the question of my unfitness did not then occur to me, for I did not know how unfit I was.”
At that time, Mr. Rockefeller was constantly hunted, stalked, and hounded almost like a wild animal, “in the privacy of his home, in the aisles of his church, on his trips to and from his office.” And there was an even larger burden of written requests. During one thirty-day period Gates counted 50,000 appeals from unknown individuals.
His first move was to review the large list of small-to-modest donations which Mr. Rockefeller had been in the habit of giving to outside organizations. He found many of these habitual charities worthless and some practically fraudulent. In a characteristic sentence, he summarizes how he dealt with the matter:
“I gradually developed and introduced into all his charities the principle of scientific giving, and he found himself in no longtime laying aside retail giving almost wholly and entering safely and pleasurably into the field of wholesale philanthropy.
As an example of the distinction, Gates recounts how they refused all appeals for help to individual parishes, but increased support to control boards which had the responsibility for distributing the available funds equitably among them. Shortly after, the same centralized arrangement was made for the Baptist missions, which had been in the habit of applying individually to Mr. Rockefeller for his help.
It is, of course, not entirely easy to turn down 50,000 requests from presumably needy individuals. Gates, however, managed to calm whatever twinges he may have felt by discovering that there were among them few cases of “actual need.” In terms that would have done credit to Dr. Pangloss, he continued:
“The sufficient reply to all such appeals to distant wealth is that there is no community anywhere which will permit worthy or unworthy persons, or even criminals in their own midst, to suffer unnecessarily.’’
Such statements may also suggest that one of the strengths, as well as a possible weakness, of our grandfathers was their extraordinary ability to see things in saturated colors. Their resolution was rarely “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
Not long after Gates joined Mr. Rockefeller, it occurred to the latter that Mr. Gates’s talents might be used more efficiently if he were asked to stop off on his numerous charitable trips to take a look at some of Mr. Rockefeller’s more peripheral business ventures. As a wealthy capitalist, Rockefeller had often been persuaded to join in speculative ventures in fields other than the oil business, but he gave relatively little attention to them until Mr. Gates became available.
In what seems to have been a combination of good will and absence of mind, some twenty highly questionable enterprises had been entered by Mr. Rockefeller in company with what Gates spoke of as the “syndicate of friends.” At this distance, it is not clear just how many of the friends acted in good faith and how many suspected that something was wrong. For our purposes, it is only necessary to note that during and after the panic of ‘93 Gates succeeded in separating Mr. Rockefeller from the syndicate. In seven out of the twenty cases he sold him out completely. In thirteen that seemed somewhat more promising he bought out his partners and obtained control. Gates is a bit vague about all the details, but it appears that Mr. Rockefeller at one time stood to lose as much as $2 million to $3 million in mines and railroads in and about Everett, Washington, alone. Before the ventures were finally liquidated, Gates had recouped all the losses and produced a profit of approximately $2 million. Besides that, as he remarked in passing, he very much enjoyed the annual trips to the West Coast in Mr. Rockefeller’s private car.
In closing his account of this Puget Sound venture, Gates is at some pains to anticipate the muckrakers who might have seen this as an example of Mr. Rockefeller’s predatory ability to buy out competitors and partners at low figures during periods of depression or other disaster. In this instance, Mr. Gates felt that nobody blamed Mr. Rockefeller, as he had been in danger of being the heaviest loser and originally had the least responsibility. All of the stockholders were given the option of staying in or selling out at a fixed price for all. Gates did not recall one word of criticism from any stockholder and concludes with the remark that “we were never involved in a lawsuit or acrimonious controversy [in regard to these Puget Sound properties].”
A far more complicated, extraordinary, and to some extent controversial enterprise was a series of transactions through which Mr. Rockefeller developed virtually complete control of the great Mesabi iron range. After eight years of intense effort, Gates was able to sell the entire complex of mines, railroads, boats, and docking facilities to Morgan’s new U.S. Steel Company at what he estimated as a $55 million profit.
Important as these incidents were for illuminating certain important characteristics of Gates’s personality, and for establishing his competence in terms Mr. Rockefeller quickly understood, they are of course peripheral to our main purpose. In any case, after the Mesabi range business, Gates became ever more completely occupied with the philanthropic side of Mr. Rockefeller’s activities.
Let us turn, then, to the next big move, and one that resulted in what was certainly Gates’s favorite enterprise. For some years he had been concerned with the low state of medical practice in the United States. Indeed, during his years in Minneapolis he had made a hobby of asking his physician friends how much good they really thought they did. Almost uniformly, the ablest and most prominent physicians in Minneapolis would report:
“Out of a hundred calls, ninety of the patients would recover as certainly and comfortably without the physician s attendance; nine could perhaps be made more comfortable and given some protection; in one case, the physician might effect what he thought of as a cure.
The general burden of these remarks had been confirmed so frequently that
“ . . when I entered Mr. Rockefeller’s private office in 1893, I had been for years convinced that medicine, as generally taught and practiced in the United States, was practically futile.”
It may be recalled that at that time there were two prominent schools of medicine: the homeopathic and the allopathic, or so-called “regular.” The homeopaths believed that the regular school did a good deal of harm with its drastic methods of treatment. The allopaths found the homeopaths dangerously doctrinaire and their tiny doses of herbs largely ineffective.
By and large, the medical colleges or schools were operated by groups of physicians drawn from one or another of these two major schools. University affiliation was by no means common and, even when it occurred in some of the older institutions, university influence was not great. The question became acute in the early days of the University of Chicago since President Harper wanted a “school dedicated to regular practice only.” Gates was strongly opposed to this and presumably communicated his views to Mr. Rockefeller, whom he reported as being
“. . . unyielding in his insistence that the University should be associated only with a medical institution founded by the University itself, representing no school of medicine, but purely scientific in its research and instruction.”
When Harper ignored this point of view and went ahead to absorb the Rush Medical College, Rockefeller and Gates lost interest.
It was after this that Gates confirmed his feeling about the uselessness of contemporary medicine by his reading of the recently published textbook of medicine authored by Sir William Osier, then professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins. Even in those days, this was a fairly massive work, numbering nearly a thousand pages, but Gates took it to his summer home on Lake Liberty, along with a medical dictionary, and read the whole thing in the course of a brief summer. In spite of the unfamiliarity of much of the material, he found himself pulled along by the excellence of the style and the intelligence of the presentation. But the ultimate conclusion only confirmed his suspicion that, in most cases, medicine could only look on as diseases ran their natural courses. The book also confirmed, at least indirectly, what Gates had long suspected, that medicine was in a somewhat better state in Europe than it was in the United States. For one thing, in Europe, with the exception of Great Britain, medicine had long been a university discipline and the German, French, and Austrian schools had especially encouraged research. Recent advances in physiology and cellular pathology were beginning to lay the groundwork for a really scientific approach to medicine, and the even more recent discoveries of Pasteur, implemented by Lister and others, were beginning to turn this hope into a reality. Not only did Gates have some inkling of the scientific advances, he was also familiar with such establishments as the Pasteur and Koch institutes, established during the preceding decade in France and Germany for the encouragement of basic medical research.
With these facts, opinions, and surmises at hand, he sat down and wrote a brief but punchy memorandum to Mr. Rockefeller suggesting that he establish a similar institute here. Unfortunately, in Gates’s view, the suggestions were turned over to Mr. Starr Murphy [an attorney?] for further development. He conducted a survey of medical opinion, which characteristically and conservatively preferred to attack the problem piecemeal and suggested a series of $20,000-a-year project grants. As Gates reported in his autobiography:
“The plan proved utterly futile, and after some years of complete frustration the medical gentlemen returned to request a new development along the lines of the original plan.”
Gates became chairman of the board of the Institute that thus emerged, and he served until his death in 1926.
Of all the Rockefeller philanthropies, this is almost certainly the one in which Gates had the most interest and probably the most influence. In detail, however, its character was very much determined by the personality of its first director, Simon Flexner, who was suggested to the board by Dr. William H. (Popsy) Welch, the Dean of Medicine and Public Health at Johns Hopkins and a long-time adviser of the Rockefeller family.
The Institute almost immediately proceeded to produce the kind of fundamental research which Gates had hoped for and, although it is difficult to measure such things, it is at least close to the truth to say that the output of really significant high-quality research per person, per dollar, or per square foot at the Rockefeller Institute has been higher than that of any other medical research institution in the country. One need only think of Landsteiner’s work on blood groupings or Avery’s studies which culminated in the suggestion that deoxyribonucleic acid is the major, if not the sole, carrier of genetic information in all organisms to realize how far reaching its influence has been.
Gates, however, saw its importance as extending far beyond the significance of any particular discoveries. “Even if the proposed Institute should fail to discover anything,” he said, “the mere fact of its existence would lead to other efforts of the same kind to promote research in America.” In the roughly seventy years since he made this prediction, the United States has, in fact, become the acknowledged leader, both in the quality and especially the quantity of its medical research. Many factors combined to put it in this position, but, among these many influences, that of the Rockefeller Institute must be placed very high.
In order to maintain a balance in this initial lecture, it may be appropriate to close with a few paragraphs on the famous tainted- money Controversy. It created an enormous stir at the time and left the language with a new phrase to describe people’s ambivalence about charitable contributions from malefactors of great wealth. Gates not surprisingly devotes a whole chapter to it, but we can only give the bare facts here.
For some years, the Board of Congregational Missions had been eyeing with a certain envy the large Rockefeller grants to the Baptist board, which we remember as initiating the concept of wholesale giving. Finally, the full-time secretary of the Congregational Missions summoned up courage to approach Mr. Gates. The latter was delighted at this opportunity to persuade Mr. Rockefeller to take a broader, more nonsectarian view of his philanthropic responsibilities. Unfortunately, the announcement of the substantial resulting grant was worded by the missions staff so as to leave the impression that the initiative had come from Mr. Rockefeller. Several Congregational ministers, always on the alert for evil-doing and who were not in on the deal, jumped to the conclusion that this was an example of Mr. Rockefeller’s wish to take over and corrupt all the institutions of the country. Denunciations thundered from several pulpits for several weeks, with one inspired preacher inventing the phrase ‘‘tainted money” at the height of the drama. Gates waited patiently for someone on the staff of the missions to confess as to how the grant came about, but he had to wait for several months before the twinges of conscience in the full-time staff became strong enough to overcome their reluctance to confess their earlier lust for tainted money and simultaneously to expose several leading preachers to embarrassment if not ridicule.
When I reflect on such tales, I think of a former friend of mine in the foundation business who had the hobby of collecting material for a book he hoped to write after his retirement on the ethics of the pious. Unfortunately, he went into a profound depression and became unable to complete the work.
Prof. George Comer gives a different and possibly more balanced view of this program, which continued in a modest way until 1917. George W. Corner, A History of the Rockefeller Institute, 190I —1953; Origins and Growth (New York: Rockefeller Institute Press, 1964), pp. 43—45.