Rockefeller Foundation (1913+)

Although scientific laws may be universal, scientific practices are not. When a dominant group attempts to "improve" how science is done in another locale, the recipients have the options of accepting, rejecting, or modifying the practices in order to fit local circumstances or preferences. This was the case in Latin America when the Spanish empire tried to impose its scientific styles upon its colonies, and the same process occurred again in the twentieth century when philanthropic organizations in the United States worked to modernize healthcare and agriculture in Latin America. According to historian Marcos Cueto, the Rockefeller Foundation, the largest American contributor to science in Latin America in the twentieth century, was convinced that institutions that had proven successful in the United States would also thrive in Latin America. The RF had mixed success in its endeavors.

The vast amount of resources that the RF dedicated to Latin America was meant to accomplish several disparate goals. First, the RF International Health Board was a philanthropic organization with a mandate to improve global health. Thus they worked to eradicate diseases, especially hookworm, yellow fever, and malaria (all discussed in more detail in this topic's sources) and improve sanitation, through water and sewage systems. The RF also provided many fellowships--1,700 between 1917 and 1962--for scientists from Latin America to train in the United States and gave millions of dollars to scientific institutions throughout Latin America. Around 1940, their focus shifted to scientific and medical education and improving agriculture,  introducing new farming techniques and strains of crops in order to increase the yields of food crops in Mexico and other countries, a process known as the Green Revolution.

Assimilation of Latin American scientists to U.S. norms of training and practice, at various times intended or unintended, was another accomplishment of the RF. By funding the training of leading Latin American scientists in universities such as Harvard, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins, the RF helped American laboratory styles spread to the south. Aspiring Latin American scientists had previously traveled to Europe, especially France, for advanced study, but the increased role of the RF in training researchers and equipping their labs decreased the prestige once associated with European science.

Nevertheless, Cueto has illustrated how not all Latin American scientists or scientific institutions converted to the U.S. mode of practice, even when receiving funding from the RF. Bernardo Houssay, who earned a Nobel Prize in physiology, maintained a unique laboratory style that could thrive without the expensive equipment and elite researchers advocated by the American system (Cueto 1994). Yet many scientists eagerly accepted advice and funding from the RF, even permitting that organization to serve as a sort of public health bureaucracy in countries where no such infrastructure existed. The success of agricultural reforms, similarly, had to do with whether or not they proved applicable to local conditions. As Deborah Fitzgerald pointed out, the fact that new crop strains and farming methods provided greater yields did not mean that these novelties were not always suited for social and cultural circumstances in Mexico (Fitzgerald, in Cueto 1994). New varieties of wheat, especially those created by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, were readily adopted by wheat farmers in northern Mexico because they already shared a general attitude towards farming that was similar to the model the RF exported. Corn, however, was usually grown on subsistence farms where U.S. methods were not so easily adapted. A byproduct of Mexico's Green Revolution was bolstering the prestige of agronomists and politicians who associated themselves with the RF, while further relegating subsistence farmers to a subaltern economic and political position.

The  Rockefeller Foundation's funding, fellowships, agricultural reforms, and struggle against epidemic diseases all, at times, succeeded or failed due to how people in Latin America received and assimilated them. For example, Brazilian public health officials often resented the RF for arrogantly imposing itself as a superior public health agency, while Bolivian doctors welcomed the RF and its expertise (see the source on Dr. George Bevier, director of the RF's public health program in Bolivia). Ultimately, the decision as to what aspects of exported science are adopted depends on the cultural, political, economic, and personal situations that already exist in a given area or develop as a result of the new science.

Questions for further exploration:

1. Consider the sources on Brazil and Bolivia. How did the RF's approach to public health differ in these two countries?

2. To what extent does the RF's philanthropy in Latin America, a program that began concurrently with the opening of the Panama Canal, constitute a kind of U.S. imperialism?

3. Both Spain and the United States sought to influence how science was conducted in Latin America, albeit at different times. Compare and contrast Spanish policies in the colonial era with those of the Rockefeller Foundation in the twentieth century. Can the RF's work be classified as scientific colonialism?

4. Was the RF's agricultural effort, the Green Revolution, more effective than its public health campaign in fulfilling the RF's goal "to promote the wellbeing of mankind throughout the world"?

5. In the 1940s, the RF began to move its focus in Latin America away from public health. What role did the failure to eradicate yellow fever, hookworm, and malaria play in this decision? What other factors were influential?

Further Reading:

Cueto, Marcos. "Laboratory Styles in Argentine Physiology." Isis. 85: 2 (June 1994): 228-246.

---, ed. Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation in Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

---. "The Rockefeller Foundation's Medical Policy and Scientific Research in Latin America: The Case of Physiology."  Social Studies of Science. 20: 2 (May 1990): 229-254.

Rockefeller Foundation Website:

Zulawski, Ann. Unequal Cures: Public Health and Political Change in Bolivia, 1900-1950. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Dr. George Bevier

Date: 1946
Owner: Unknown Owner
Source Type: Images


Dr. George Bevier was the director of the Rockefeller Foundation's public health initiative in Bolivia from 1946 until the program ended in 1952. The RF first became involved in Bolivia to fight against an outbreak of yellow fever in 1932, many years after it had begun programs in more scientifically advanced countries like Brazil and Mexico. The RF had the luxury of only combating the ills it chose to address, and it focused on yellow fever, as opposed to more deadly diseases like malaria, because the RF had proven itself capable of eliminating urban yellow fever quickly and efficiently.

Although the RF's overall emphasis in Latin America began changing in the 1940s from public health to education, the RF did not consider Bolivia advanced enough to benefit from such programs. Instead, under the leadership of Bevier, it took on an even broader range of public health responsibilities, including campaigns against malaria, yaws, typhus, and hookworm. The largest challenge that Bevier faced in Bolivia was a 1950 outbreak of yellow fever. Torrential rains had washed away roads and landing strips, so RF doctors were forced to travel by horse to remote areas in order to inoculate people in the danger zone. Despite these efforts, Bevier and the RF became subject to public attack for allowing the outbreak to occur.

The RF was initially welcomed in Bolivia and made several important contributions to its public health, but Bolivia's increasingly nationalistic political climate encouraged local doctors to reject the RF as a supposed agent of imperialism. Yet both Bolivian and U.S. doctors, including Bevier, shared the same elitist and racist understanding of Bolivian society. They all blamed Bolivia's many public health issues on Indians (a mostly impoverished group that made up almost 80% of the population), citing Indian ignorance and drunkenness as the obstacle to improving public health when, in reality, it was a much more complicated confluence of social problems.

Reference: Zulawski, Ann. Unequal Cures: Public Health and Political Change in Bolivia, 1900-1950. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

CITATION: Zulawski, Ann. Unequal Cures: Public Health and Political Change in Bolivia, 1900-1950. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, pp. 105. Courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation Archives.



Dr. Norman Borlaug

Date: 1970
Owner: Norman E. Borlaug Digital Archives
Source Type: Images


This photograph shows United States scientist Dr. Norman Borlaug, one of the leading figures of Mexico's Green Revolution, in a wheat field in Mexico. The Rockefeller Foundation began working with the Mexican government in 1943 in an effort (initiated by Mexican president Manuel Camacho and U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace) to improve Mexican crop yields and make Mexico self-reliant in grain production. Borlaug joined this effort in 1945 as a geneticist and plant pathologist. He developed a hybrid form of wheat that took on the most useful characteristics of both Mexican and U.S. strains. Mexican wheat ripened early but was subject to stem rust while U.S. wheat ripened late but was safe from rust; Borlaug fused them into a strain that ripened early yet did not rust. As a testament to his success, 90% of all Mexican wheat fields were planted with improved grain by 1957. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his success in increasing crop yields in Mexico and, later, India.

Although Borlaug's wheat thrived in Mexico, the RF's contemporaneous effort to improve corn yields proved far less successful. Mexican wheat farms were very similar to those of the U.S. (large-scale production agriculture) and thus adapted well to the U.S.-style farming system that RF employees like Borlaug brought to Mexico. Corn (maize) farms, however, were usually smaller family-owned subsistence farms. These scattered farms did not have the resources to invest in the fertilizers and irrigation systems necessary to make hybrid corn profitable, nor was there a sufficient network for distributing the seeds of new strains in remote rural areas. By 1963, only 12% of Mexican corn was hybrid. In short, Borlaug's wheat program was very successful because it was well suited for the U.S.-style agriculture that already predominated in that sector and which RF promoted.  The RF's attempts to introduce hybrid strains of corn did far more poorly because the U.S. production model could not be projected onto Mexican subsistence farms. Despite the good intentions of the RF, Mexican corn culture could not accommodate U.S. norms.

Reference: Fitzgerald, Deborah. "Exporting American Agriculture: The Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, 1943-1953." In Marcos Cueto, ed. Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation in Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

CITATION: Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. Image courtesy of the Norman E. Borlaug Digital Archives.



John D. Rockefeller

Date: 1905
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This 1905 cartoon depicts John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839-1937) as a saint for his philanthropic donations to education and the Baptist church. Rockefeller made his fortune by investing in petroleum refinement and creating a near monopoly of the U.S. oil industry. He retired from the business world when he was fifty-six in order to devote his time to giving away his hundreds of millions of dollars (he is often considered to be the richest businessman in history).

His donations were based on extensive research as to how his money could do the most good, an effort led by his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his advisor Frederick T. Gates. Ivy League universities and churches were the earliest recipients of his largess but, in 1901, he began to invest in medicine, creating the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. In 1909, he founded the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, an organizations that successfully eradicated hookworm in the southern United States.

Rockefeller's impact on Latin American science began with the formation of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in 1913, an organization created "to promote the well being of mankind throughout the world." The RF's efforts in Latin America included public health initiatives (like the fights against hookworm, yellow fever, and malaria), scientific education, medical centers, fellowships for advanced research in the U.S., and agricultural innovations (most notably the Green Revolution in Mexico during the 1940s).

Historians of Latin American science call attention to the RF because it had a massive impact on the institutions, infrastructure, and attitude towards science throughout the region. The RF has been accused of promoting U.S. economic and political interests and exporting a decidedly North American way of doing science that marginalized local practices. Although there is much truth in these claims, the RF has provided much real aid to Latin America in many different forms, and Rockefeller and his foundation deserve credit for their philanthropy.

CITATION: "John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937)." 1905. The Granger Collection, New York. 0002490.



Malaria in Brazil

Date: 1980
Owner: National Library of Medicine
Source Type: Images

This Brazilian poster warns travelers (fishermen, drivers and miners) of the risk of catching malaria in Brazil's northwestern jungles and spreading it to the heavily populated southern states, paticularly Sao Paulo (colored red). Brazilians had fought against malaria since the 1600s with quinine, a drug produced from the native cinchona tree, but the increase of international commerce in the early twentieth century brought new strains of the disease and a new immediacy to preventing its spread. It thus attracted attention (and thousands of employees and millions of dollars) from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The RF's major campaign against malaria in Brazil came in 1938, when a particularly deadly strain of that disease caused the largest malaria epidemic ever seen in the Americas (almost 100,000 cases and 14,000 deaths). To fight this outbreak, the RF used a combination of eradication and containment techniques practiced by international sanitation commissions throughout the first half of the twentieth century. As in the struggle against yellow fever, the RF targeted larval mosquitoes by spraying their breeding grounds (which included swamps and domestic walls) in order to kill as many of these vectors as possible. They also monitored all vehicles leaving the infected zone so as to ensure the disease would not spread. By 1940, every malaria bearing mosquito had been eradicated, an impressive achievement that the RF had been unable to bring about in its fight against hookworm or yellow fever. Although preventative methods are well known and treatments are inexpensive, malaria continues to kill well over one million people worldwide each year.

CITATION: Malaria pescador, caminhoneiro, garimpeiro. United States National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Order #: A030860.



Manuel Avila Camacho

Date: 1943
Owner: Google Images
Source Type: Images


Manuel Avila Camacho was president of Mexico during the earliest years of the Green Revolution, the blanket term for genetic and technical advances in agriculture that began with the Rockefeller Foundation's involvement in Mexico in 1943. Camacho was among the many Mexican political leaders and agricultural scientists who considered modernizing and improving agriculture as a necessary step to bolstering the economy and solving the perennial problem of food shortage. Furthermore, Mexico's agricultural science professionals had been losing prestige in the eyes of the populace, especially farmers, who were beginning to think these experts incapable of keeping Mexico fed. Thus Camacho and the agricultural scientists were eager to cooperate with the RF in the Mexican Agricultural Project (MAP), the most successful of several attempts by Mexican politicians and specialists to gain the assistance of agricultural experts from the United States.

The U.S. farming methods advocated by the MAP did not always fit with Mexican realities, especially regarding small maize farms, but it did accomplish the goals of the politicians and scientists who promoted it. The advanced techniques and improved yields (most notably in wheat) bolstered the prestige of the scientific community, as did the RF's fellowships for Mexican agriculturalists to attend graduate schools in the U.S. For Camacho and other political leaders, the MAP eased the public criticism that the government was not doing anything to increase food production or improve the agricultural sector in general. When viewed from the perspective of the Mexicans who first promoted it, the MAP was a success.

Reference: Cotter, Joseph. "The Rockefeller Foundation's Mexican Agricultural Project: A Cross-Cultural Encounter." In Marcos Cueto, ed., Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

CITATION: "TIME cover 04-19-1943 ill. of Manuel Avila Camacho." Photographer: Ernest Hamlin Baker. Courtesy of Google Images.




Date: 1915
Owner: National Library of Medicine
Source Type: Images


This illustration of an outhouse was produced by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of its campaign against hookworm. Hookworm (uncinariasis) is a disease caused by a parasite that thrives in unsanitary conditions, especially those that bring people into contact with the fecal matter of infected persons. This outhouse was meant to prevent human waste from entering the soil, a simple and effective means of ensuring hygiene in rural areas that had no plumbing. Like many sanitation efforts of this period (including those of the PASB), the emphasis was on preventing the spread of diseases so as to eventually eliminate them from the Americas.

The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease was the RF's first effort to promote health and sanitation in Latin America, and it began work in Brazil in 1916. The RF's campaign against hookworm quickly became something of a state health service, serving as a local sanitation institution in areas where no such infrastructure had existed previously. One of the most positive results of the RF's fight against hookworm was that several rural sanitation offices did grow out of the healthcare and prevention framework that the RF's officers had set up. By the late 1920s, however, it became clear that the RF would be unable to eradicate hookworm. The RF thus shifted its sanitation efforts in Latin America from hookworm to yellow fever and malaria, diseases that were more easily spread through shipping and could have a larger impact on the U.S. Even today, almost one fourth of the world's population is infected with the hookworm parasite, a testament to the fact that rural sanitation remains deplorable in much of the world.

Reference: Cueto, Marcos. "Introduction." In Marcos Cueto, ed., Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

CITATION: Hookworm infection: Latrines.  United States National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Order #: A012964.



Source References


Abel, Christopher. "External Philanthropy and Domestic Change in Colombian Health Care: The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation, ca. 1920-1950." Hispanic American Historical Review. 75 (1995): 339-376.

Birn, Anne-Emanuelle and Armando Soloranzo. "Public Health Policy Paradoxes: Science and Politics in the Rockefeller Foundation's Hookworm Campaign in Meico in the 1920s." Social Science and Medicine. 49 (1999): 1197-1213. 

Birn, Anne-Emanuelle and Armando Soloranzo. "The Hook of Hookworm: Public Health and the Politics of Eradication in Mexico." Western Medicine as Contested Knowledge. Andrew Cunningham, ed. Manchester: St. Martin's Press, 1997. pg. 147-171.

Birn, Anne-Emmanuelle. "Eradication, control or neither? Hookworm versus malaria strategies and Rockefeller Public Health in Mexico." Parassitologia. 40 (1996): 137-147.

Cotter, Joseph. "The Rockefeller Foundation's Mexican Agricultural Project: A Cross-cultural Encounter, 1943-1949. In Cueto, ed. Missionaries of Science. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Cotter, Joseph. Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Cueto, Marcos, ed. Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Cueto, Marcos. "Andean Biology in Peru: Scientific Styles on the Periphery." Isis. 80: 4 (December 1989): 640-658. 

Cueto, Marcos. "The Cycles of Eradication: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin American public Heatlh, 1918-1940." International Health Organisations and Movements, 1918-1939. P. Weindling, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. pg. 222-2

Cueto, Marcos. "The Rockefeller Foundation's Medical Policy and Scientific Research in Latin America: The Case of Physiology." Social Studies of Science. 20: 2 (May 1990): 229-254.

Cueto, Marcos. "The Rockefeller Foundation's Medical Policy and Scientific research in Latin America: The Case of Physiology." Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. pg. 1

Fitzgerald, Deborah. "Exporting American Agriculture: The Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, 1943-1953." In Cueto, ed., Missionaries of Science. pg. 72-96.

Fitzgerald, Deborah. "Exporting American Agriculture: The Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, 1943-53." Social Studies of Science.16: 3 (August 1986): 457-483.

Franco-Agudelo, Saul. "The Rockefeller Foundation's Antimalarial Program in Latin America: Donating or Dominating?" International Journal of Health Services. 13: 1 (1983): 51-67.

Glick, Thomas. "The Rockefeller Foundation and the Emergence of Genetics in Brasil, 1943-1960." In Cueto ed. Missionaries of Science.Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. pg. 149-164.

Packard, Randall M. and Paulo Gadelha. "A Land Filled with Mosquitoes: Fred L. Soper, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Anopheles gambiae Invasion of Brazil." Parassitologia. 36 (1994): 197-213.

Palmer, Steven. "Central American Encounters with Rockefeller Public Health, 1914-1921." In Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.-Latin AMerican Relations. G.M. Joseph et. al., eds. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. p.

Sauer, Carl Ortwin. Andean reflections: Letters from Carl O. Sauer while on a South American trip under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, 1942. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982.

Shaplen, Robert. Toward the well-being of mankind: fifty years of the Rockefeller Foundation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

Sonnenfeld, David A. "Mexico's 'Green Revolution,' 1940-1980: Towards and Environmental History." Environmental History Review. 23: 4 (Winter 1992): 28-52.

Vessuri, Hebe M.C. "Foreign Scientists, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Origins of Agricultural Sceince in Venzuela." Minerva. 32 (1994): 267-296.

Williams, Steven C. "Nationalism and Public Health: The Convergence of Rockefeller Foundation Technique and Brazilian Federal Authority during the Time of Yellow Fever, 1925-1930." in Missionaries of Science: the Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America


Spraying Mosquitoes

Date: 1945
Owner: National Library of Medicine
Source Type: Images

This photograph shows a party of U.S. and Brazilian men spraying pesticides to destroy a mosquito breeding ground in Brazil. Between 1923 and 1935, the Rockefeller Foundation made the eradication of yellow fever its priority in Brazil, the largest Latin American country and thus the focus of much of the RF's efforts. Carlos Finlay's experiments in Cuba during the late nineteenth century had proven that mosquitoes were the vector of yellow fever and, since the turn of the century, the destruction of the Aedes aegypti had become a priority for health officials in most American countries.

According to historian Steven C. Williams, the RF's approach to eradicating disease-bearing mosquitoes allowed Brazil's national government to exert a more dominant role in state politics. Local leaders had enjoyed the support garnered by public fumigation campaigns that, in dramatic fashion, killed urban mosquitoes. The RF and federal government, however, advocated the more effective method of destroying Aedes aegypti while still in their larval stage, a practice that both prevented them from spreading yellow fever and from producing more mosquitoes. By institutionalizing this practice in lieu of the local mosquito killing campaigns, the RF helped to ensure that the national government, and not the various states, would have the leading role in Brazilian public health.  These methods of larval elimination promoted by the RF in its anti-mosquito campaignes were often resented by local people for being invasive, since they involved methods like putting fish in home drinking water stored in jugs, or spreading a film of oil on water supplies to prevent mosquitos from breeding.

By the mid 1930s, however, it became clear that eliminating yellow fever in toto would not be possible. The RF thus shifted its efforts in Latin America to programs with which it could have more potential success, such as the agricultural collaboration with Mexico.

Reference: Williams, Steven C. "Nationalism and Public Health: The Convergence of Rockefeller Foundation Technique and Brazilian Federal Authority during the Time of Yellow Fever, 1925-1930." In Marcos Cueto, ed., Missionaries of Science: The Rockefeller Foundation and Latin America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

CITATION: Malaria control unit no. 202 sprays the swamps in Brazil, 10/31/45. United States National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Order #: A015231.