The Rockefeller Foundation and the Rise of Molecular Biology

Abir-Am, Pnina G. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, 3 (January 2002), 65-70PDF document.

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The Rockefeller Foundation began to support a systematic transfer of physico-chemical technology to experimental biology in the early 1930s. A close look at three key projects in the United Kingdom shows the impact and limits of private philanthropy on scientific innovation.


The role of philanthropic foundations in society is of interest to historians, economists and sociologists who seek to understand the prominence of such institutions at historical junctions, such as the sudden endings of the First and Second World Wars, and, more recently, the Cold War. At such times of transition, foundations — situated at the interface of the public and private sectors, or of the state, the corporate/industrial sphere and civic society — seem to have anticipated important policy initiatives on both social and scientific innovation. Foundations have the advantage of greater flexibility than the state or other bureaucracies, and such innovative policies were later pursued on a larger (both national and international) scale by governments or by large corporations and non-governmental organizations.

Scholarship on the role of foundations in science has greatly increased in the past two decades, not only because of a rising interest in the organizations that mediate between the state and civic society, but also owing to the rise of science to cultural prominence. Against this background, the interaction between one of the foremost philanthropic foundations, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), and major scientific change — such as the rise of cellular and molecular biology between the 1930s and the 1960s — sheds light on issues of interest to both scientists and historians.

How did the RF come to be one of the most stable sources of funding during the transition from classical (organismic) biology to cellular and molecular biology in the period between the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s? What was the impact of its specific funding strategies on scientific progress? And can the RF’s long-term funding patterns — which required that it be kept closely informed of scientific developments in the laboratories of its grantees — shed any light on the philosophical and ethical issues associated with turning points in science? These points include pivotal problems such as the relationship between theory and experiment; between biology, chemistry and physics; between individual and institutional cooperation; and between equal opportunity and harassment according to criteria of gender or ethnicity.

The three case-studies of long-term RF sponsored projects discussed below: in cellular physiology at the Molteno Institute in Cambridge; protein structure at the Cavendish Laboratory, also in Cambridge; and biophysics at King’s College in London, illustrate all these problems, as well as the more specific themes of the rise of molecular biology, and the impact and limits of philanthropy in scientific innovation… full articlePDF document