Tom Metcalf just penned an article this week at Bloomberg, comparing the wealth of John D. Rockefeller, the oil magnate usually considered the world’s first billionaire, who died 82 years ago on May 23, 1937, to other modern-day billionaires. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is worth $117 billion. L’Oréal SA heiress Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, the richest woman, has $54 billion. But how do their fortunes compare with those of past plutocrats? There are those who could claim to be richer. John D. Rockefeller made about $1.5 billion in his career, according to his 1937 New York Times obit—about $26 billion in today’s dollars. A better comparison, says Samuel Williamson, an economist who runs measuringworth.com, might be “relative output,” the ratio of wealth to gross domestic product. Rockefeller’s $1.5 billion was about 1.6% of the economy in 1937. Were he to own the same percentage today, his fortune would be almost triple Bezos’.
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER could serve as the poster child for CAPITALISM. Overcoming humble beginnings, Rockefeller had the vision and the drive to become the richest person in America.
Whatever conclusions can be drawn, Rockefeller’s impact on the American economy demands recognition and we wanted to recognize his contributions and accomplishments to our industry on the anniversary of his death.
Before his death in 1937, Rockefeller gave away nearly half of his fortune. Churches, medical foundations, universities, and centers for the arts received hefty sums of oil money. Whether he was driven by goodwill, conscience, or his devout faith in God is unknown. Regardless, he became a hero to many enterprising Americans.
Below is the history of this ultimate oil man, taken from the Rockefeller Archive Center.
John Davison Rockefeller (July 8, 1839 – May 23, 1937) was the guiding force behind the creation and development of the Standard Oil Company, which grew to dominate the oil industry and became one of the first big trusts in the United States, thus engendering much controversy and opposition regarding its business practices and form of organization. Rockefeller also was one of the first major philanthropists in the U.S., establishing several important foundations and donating a total of $540 million to charitable purposes.
Rockefeller was born on farm at Richford, in Tioga County, New York, on July 8, 1839, the second of the six children of William A. and Eliza (Davison) Rockefeller. The family lived in modest circumstances. When he was a boy, the family moved to Moravia and later to Owego, New York, before going west to Ohio in 1853. The Rockefellers bought a house in Strongsville, near Cleveland, and John entered Central High School in Cleveland. While he was a student he rented a room in the city and joined the Erie Street Baptist Church, which later became the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church. Active in its affairs, he became a trustee of the church at the age of 21.
He left high school in 1855 to take a business course at Folsom Mercantile College. He completed the six-month course in three months and, after looking for a job for six weeks, was employed as an assistant bookkeeper by Hewitt & Tuttle, a small firm of commission merchants and produce shippers. Rockefeller was not paid until after he had worked there three months, when Hewitt gave him $50 ($3.57 a week) and told him that his salary was being increased to $25 a month. A few months later he became the cashier and bookkeeper.
In 1859, with $1,000 he had saved and another $1,000 borrowed from his father, Rockefeller formed a partnership in the commission business with another young man, Maurice B. Clark. In that same year the first oil well was drilled at Titusville in western Pennsylvania, giving rise to the petroleum industry. Cleveland soon became a major refining center of the booming new industry, and in 1863 Rockefeller and Clark entered the oil business as refiners. Together with a new partner, Samuel Andrews, who had some refining experience, they built and operated an oil refinery under the company name of Andrews, Clark & Co. The firm also continued in the commission business but in 1865 the partners, now five in number, disagreed about the management of their business affairs and decided to sell the refinery to whoever amongst them bid the highest. Rockefeller bought it for $72,500, sold out his other interests and, with Andrews, formed Rockefeller & Andrews.
THE STANDARD OIL COMPANY
Rockefeller’s stake in the oil industry increased as the industry itself expanded, spurred by the rapidly spreading use of kerosene for lighting. In 1870 he organized The Standard Oil Company along with his brother William, Andrews, Henry M. Flagler, S.V. Harkness, and others. It had a capital of $1 million.
By 1872 Standard Oil had purchased and thus controlled nearly all the refining firms in Cleveland, plus two refineries in the New York City area. Before long the company was refining 29,000 barrels of crude oil a day and had its own cooper shop manufacturing wooden barrels. The company also had storage tanks with a capacity of several hundred thousand barrels of oil, warehouses for refined oil, and plants for the manufacture of paints and glue.
Standard prospered and, in 1882, all its properties were merged in the Standard Oil Trust, which was in effect one great company. It had an initial capital of $70 million. There were originally forty-two certificate holders, or owners, in the trust.
After ten years the trust was dissolved by a court decision in Ohio. The companies that had made up the trust later joined in the formation of the Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), since New Jersey had adopted a law that permitted a parent company to own the stock of other companies. It is estimated that Standard Oil owned three-fourths of the petroleum business in the U.S. in the 1890s.
In addition to being the head of Standard, Rockefeller owned iron mines and timberland and invested in numerous companies in manufacturing, transportation, and other industries. Although he held the title of president of Standard Oil until 1911, Rockefeller retired from active leadership of the company in 1896. In 1911 the U.S. Supreme Court found the Standard Oil trust to be in violation of the anti-trust laws and ordered the dissolution of the parent New Jersey corporation. The thirty-eight companies which it then controlled were separated into individual firms. In his biography, Study in Power, John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist, the historian Allan Nevins reports that Rockefeller at that time owned 244,500 of the company’s total of 983,383 outstanding shares.
Rockefeller was 57 years old in 1896 when he decided that others should take over the day-to-day leadership of Standard Oil. He now focused his efforts on philanthropy, giving away the bulk of his fortune in ways designed to do the most good as determined by careful study, experience and the help of expert advisers.
From the time he had begun earning money as a boy, he had been giving a share of his income to his church and charities. His philanthropy grew out of his early family training, religious convictions, and financial habits. “I believe it is every man’s religious duty to get all he can honestly and to give all he can,” he once wrote. During the 1850s, he made regular contributions to the Baptist church, and by the time he was 21, he was giving not only to his own but to other denominations, as well as to a foreign Sunday school and an African-American church. Support of religious institutions and African-American education remained among his foremost philanthropic interests throughout his life.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
As his wealth grew in the 1870s and 1880s, Rockefeller came to favor a cooperative and conditional system of giving in which he would agree to supply part of the sum needed for a particular project if the others interested in it also would provide substantial financial support. It was on such a conditional basis that Rockefeller participated in the founding of the University of Chicago. The American Baptist Education Society had resolved in 1889 to establish a “well-equipped college” in Chicago. At the urging of the society’s director, the Rev. Frederick T. Gates, Rockefeller offered to give $600,000 of the first $1 million for endowment, provided the remaining $400,000 was pledged by others within 90 days. Thus begun, the University of Chicago was incorporated in 1890, and over the next twenty years, Rockefeller contributed to help build up the institution, always on condition that others should join in its support. In 1910 he made a farewell gift of $10 million, which brought his total contributions to the university to about $35 million. In withdrawing from further activity there, he wrote: “I am acting on an early and permanent conviction that this great institution, being the property of the people, should be controlled, conducted and supported by the people.”
Rockefeller recognized the difficulties of wisely applying great funds to human welfare, and he helped to define the method of scientific, efficient, corporate philanthropy. The method was this: to create charitable corporations and give them title to great funds, whose management and use would be governed by trustees and overseen by officers with specialized training and experience, with both the trustees and officers being dedicated to continuous study of the opportunities for the best uses of the funds under their care. To help manage his philanthropy, Rockefeller hired the Rev. Frederick T. Gates, whose work with the American Baptist Education Society and the University of Chicago inspired Rockefeller’s confidence. With the advice of Gates and, after 1897, his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Rockefeller established a series of institutions that are important in the history of American philanthropy, science, and medicine and public health.
THE ROCKEFELLER INSTITUTE FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH
In 1901 he founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now The Rockefeller University) for the purpose of discovering the causes, manner of prevention, and the cure of disease. From its laboratories have come cures for diseases, and new knowledge and scientific techniques which have helped to revolutionize medicine, biology, biochemistry, biophysics, and other scientific disciplines. A few of the noted achievements of its scientists are the serum treatment of spinal meningitis and of pneumonia; knowledge of the cause and manner of infection in infantile paralysis; the nature of the virus causing epidemic influenza; blood vessel surgery; a treatment for African sleeping sickness; the first demonstration of the preservation of whole blood for subsequent transfusion; the first demonstration of how nerve cells flow from the brain to other areas of the body; the discovery that a virus can cause cancer in fowl; peptide synthesis; and identification of DNA as the crucial genetic material.
THE GENERAL EDUCATION BOARD (1902-1965)
In 1902 Rockefeller established the General Education Board (GEB) for the “promotion of education within the United States of America without the distinction of race, sex or creed.” In its active years between 1902 and 1965, the GEB distributed $325 million for the improvement of education at all levels, with emphasis upon higher education, including medical schools. In the South, where there was a special need, the GEB helped schools for both white and African-American students. Also, out of the Board’s work with children’s clubs in the farm arena grew the 4-H Club movement and the federal programs of farm and home extension.
ROCKEFELLER SANITARY COMMISSION (1909-1915)
In 1909 Rockefeller combined his special interest in the South and his interest in public health with the creation of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease. Its purpose was “to bring about a cooperative movement of the medical profession, public health officials, boards of trade, churches, schools, the press, and other agencies for the cure and prevention of hookworm disease,” which was especially devastating in the South. From its headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Sanitary Commission launched a massive campaign of public education and medication in eleven Southern states. It paid the salaries of field personnel, who were appointed jointly by the states and the Commission, and sponsored public education campaigns and the treatment of infected persons. As part of this program, more than 25,000 public meetings were attended by more than 2 million people who were given the facts about hookworm and its prevention. So successful was its work that a new agency was created as part of a new Rockefeller philanthropy to expand the work to other countries and to attack other diseases both in the South and abroad.
THE ROCKEFELLER FOUNDATION
In 1913 Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) to “promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” In keeping with this broad commitment, the Foundation through the years has given important assistance to public health, medical education, increasing food production, scientific advancement, social research, the arts, and other fields all over the world.
The Foundation’s International Health Division expanded the work of the Sanitary Commission worldwide, working against various diseases in fifty-two countries on six continents and twenty-nine islands, bringing international recognition of the need for public health and environmental sanitation. Its early field research on hookworm, malaria and yellow fever provided the basic techniques to control these diseases and established the pattern of modern public health services. The RF built and endowed the world’s first School of Hygiene and Public Health, at The Johns Hopkins University, and then spent over $25 million in developing public health schools in the U.S. and in twenty-one foreign countries. Its agricultural development program in Mexico led to what has been called the Green Revolution in the advancement of food production around the world; and the RF provided significant funding for the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Thousands of scientists and scholars from all over the world have received RF fellowships and scholarships for advanced study. The foundation helped to found the Social Science Research Council and has provided significant support for such organizations as the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Russian Institute at Columbia University. In the arts the RF has helped establish or support the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario, Canada, and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut; Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; Karamu House in Cleveland; and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.
OTHER ROCKEFELLER PHILANTHROPIC SUPPORT
In addition to creating these corporate philanthropies, Rockefeller continued to make personal donations. Among others whose activities received his financial support were various colleges and universities, including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Spelman, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Vassar; theological schools; the Palisades Interstate Park Commission; San Francisco Earthquake victims; the Anti-Saloon League; Rockefeller Park and other parks in Cleveland; Baptist missionary organizations; and various YMCAs and YWCAs.
John D. Rockefeller and Laura C. Spelman (1839-1915), a teacher, were married on September 8, 1864, in Cleveland. The Rockefellers had five children — four daughters and a son, John D., Jr. (1874-1960), who inherited much of the family fortune and continued his father’s philanthropic work. Their eldest daughter, Bessie (1866-1906), married Charles Strong. Their second daughter, Alice (1869-1870), died in infancy. Alta (1871-1962) married E. Parmalee Prentice, and the youngest daughter, Edith (1872-1932), married Harold Fowler McCormick.
In the 1870s Rockefeller began to make business trips from Cleveland to New York. After a time he started bringing along his family for lengthy stays and, in 1884, he bought a large brownstone house at 4 West 54th Street, the land of which is now part of the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Beginning in the 1890s, the family spent part of their time at Pocantico Hills, about 25 miles north of New York. For a number of years the Rockefellers returned during the summer to their Forest Hill home in East Cleveland. As he grew older, Rockefeller spent several months each year at his country homes in Lakewood, New Jersey, and Ormond Beach, Florida.
Rockefeller died on the morning of May 23, 1937, at The Casements, his home in Ormond Beach. He was 97 years old. He is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland.
Copyright © The Rockefeller Archive Center. All rights reserved.
Compiled and Published by GIB KNIGHT
Gib Knight is a private oil and gas investor and consultant, providing clients advanced analytics and building innovative visual business intelligence solutions to visualize the results, across a broad spectrum of regulatory filings and production data in Oklahoma and Texas. He is the founder of OklahomaMinerals.com, an online resource designed for mineral owners in Oklahoma.
John Davison Rockefeller Bio – The Rockefeller Archive Center