Silent Partner


John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839-1937) and Jr. (1874-1960)

At the end of the 19th century, vast personal fortunes were created in the United States. Industrial advances made from 1870 to 1900 opened opportunities in railways, oil, banking and manufacturing. Savvy businessmen with names like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan and Rockefeller accrued enough wealth to ensure a life of ease for generations to come.

With these riches they built “cottages” like The Breakers in Newport, R.I., and country homes like Biltmore in Asheville, N.C. They took their new money into old homes and mingled with the Edith Wharton-esque characters of the Gilded Age. These so-called robber barons spent on a lavish scale–jewels, travel, and Worth gowns from Paris. But they also revolutionized philanthropic giving in the United States.

Hospitals, museums, opera houses and libraries all benefited from their largesse–and so did Vanderbilt University.

In 1873 Cornelius Vanderbilt agreed to donate $1 million to endow the university that bears his name. However, the name of the family that has given the most money over the years isn’t found anywhere on campus–not on a building or statue or even a classroom door. When the final accounting is done, the Rockefeller family may have had a far greater impact on Vanderbilt than its namesake.

John D. Rockefeller Sr. founded Standard Oil Co. in 1870 and ran it until he retired
in the late 1890s. He is often maligned and charged with the same unscrupulous business practices that ran rampant in the latter years of the 19th century. It is true that he built his fortune by buying out his competitors. Those who were reluctant to
sell were often forced into bankruptcy by the larger Standard Oil.

But those who did sell usually found themselves very wealthy–especially when shares of Standard Oil were included in the deal.

mcn 1925

Vanderbilt’s new medical center, opened in 1925, housed the medical school, hospital and research laboratories under one roof. The building is now part of Medical Center North.

As America’s dependence on gasoline grew, Rockefeller’s stock value–and wealth–grew accordingly. He was easily the richest person in the world and is regarded by some as the richest person ever. A staunch Northern Baptist, he gave 10 percent of every paycheck to his church from the time he was 16. Over the years Rockefeller and his heirs funneled money to Vanderbilt in three ways–through the General Education Board (GEB), the Rockefeller Foundation and individually.

The GEB was created in 1902 and chartered by Congress in 1903. Its mission was to promote education throughout the United States “without distinction of race, sex or creed.” Specifically, the GEB focused on the education of African Americans in the South. The secretary of the new organization was Wallace Buttrick–a name that’s familiar to Vanderbilt alumni and friends. Chancellor James Kirkland quickly formed a relationship with Buttrick when he realized the possibilities that existed within the GEB.

Over the years the GEB donated more than $23 million to Vanderbilt–including, in 1928, the funds that built Garland, Buttrick and Calhoun halls, and more than $17 million to the medical school between 1914 and 1960.

In 1910 Abraham Flexner, a Kentucky schoolteacher and principal employed by the Carnegie Foundation to visit and report on medical schools in the United States and Canada, published a document focusing on the sorry state of medical education. The impact of the “Flexner Report” was felt around the country and resulted in the closure of many medical schools.


Nursing school class in Mary Kirkland Hall shortly after the building’s 1925 completion, with funding provided by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1912 Flexner moved to the GEB to serve as secretary under Buttrick, who had been named president. By 1917 the GEB had committed $50 million to improving medical schools, especially in the South. Together, Flexner, Buttrick and Kirkland envisioned a new Vanderbilt Medical School with a research-oriented faculty attuned to meeting the special needs of the mostly poor, mostly rural South. In 1919 Kirkland secured $4 million to build the new facility–the GEB’s largest grant to a university up to that time. In just 10 years the GEB would invest another $10 million in the medical school.

In 1913 John D. Rockefeller Sr. created the Rockefeller Foundation with a mission to “promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was one of the original leaders of the foundation.

One of the foundation’s lasting legacies was the funding it provided to the Vanderbilt School of Nursing. The school was created in 1908 but was not considered a part of Vanderbilt’s overall educational mission. At that time–especially in the South–nursing sometimes meant little more than housekeeping and was not a career of choice for prominent young women.

By 1925 Canby Robinson, dean of the medical school, envisioned a much-improved nursing school to complement the new medical school. He turned to the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave two grants–one to upgrade the existing school and one (shared with Peabody College) for a joint public health nursing program. The foundation made other significant contributions to the School of Nursing in 1930 and 1937.

Individually, the Rockefellers have also been more than generous when it comes to Vanderbilt. Today’s Divinity School benefited greatly from a gift John D. Jr. made to the School of Religion in 1925. Winthrop Rockefeller bequeathed $500,000 to Vanderbilt upon his death. And countless other gifts have impacted the university. From research advances to scholarship support to the physical beauty of the campus, Vanderbilt is much indebted to the Rockefeller family.

John D. Rockefeller Sr. is credited with helping to shape philanthropy in America as we know it today. His systematic approach of identifying targets through various foundations has had a major effect on medicine, education and scientific research. During his lifetime it is estimated that he gave away $550 million. So while Vanderbilt owes its origins and its name to the Commodore, it certainly owes a much larger debt to a man whose statue or portrait is nowhere to be found.