Rockefeller Archive Center

Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports are created by recipients of research travel stipends and by many others who have conducted research at the RAC. The reports demonstrate the breadth of the RAC's archival holdings, particularly in the study of philanthropy and its effects. Read more about the history of philanthropy at Also, see the RAC Bibliography of Scholarship, a comprehensive online database of publications citing RAC archival collections.
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“Food-Space-Energy Problems”: The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the New Alchemy Institute, and the Emergence of Ecological Design in the 1970s

June 3, 2021

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) initiated its Environmental Program out of long-standing work in conservation and population in 1974. Driven by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, famines, and the emergence of scientific research into the limits of the earth's resources, the RBF funded organizations that looked for ways to help humans live less destructively on a threatened planet. Its support helped usher in the rise of ecological design through its grant program, funding organizations focused on environmental lifestyles, agricultural practices, and renewable energy technologies. This research report explores the relationship between one such organization, the New Alchemy Institute, and the RBF during that decade. It suggests that the RBF played a critical role in providing networking opportunities and encouraging groups to strengthen their scientific investigations. While RBF support remained strong for nearly ten years, by the end of the 1970s, the Fund began looking towards "middleground" solutions to agricultural and ecological problems. It founded the American Farmland Trust in 1980 and turned most of its agricultural funding towards that institution. The RBF also increasingly sought to support international eco-development. Such changes in granting objectives pushed ecological design groups to shift away from their social critiques and towards international work and an embrace of ecological economics. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, therefore, facilitated both the success of an alternative technology movement and aided its transition into the mainstream.

The Ford Foundation, NGOs, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

February 24, 2021

While not well known among the general public, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea remains one of the most important global environmental agreements ever reached. Under the auspices of the United Nations, delegates from over 150 nations worked for almost a decade to develop a comprehensive legal regime to govern the oceans. Yet these delegates did not discuss and debate alone. They were joined by a transnational network of activists, lawyers, scientists, and other professionals concerned with humanity's changing relationship with the oceans. Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) brought these different groups together in conferences, workshops, and other informal gatherings to advance scholarship, shape policy, and educate the public. But without the direct sponsorship of participating states, NGOs had to look elsewhere for the resources necessary to realize their mission. Philanthropic organizations, such as the Ford Foundation, often supplied a crucial source of funding. With the financial backing of wealthy foundations, smaller NGOs could explore ideas, establish relationships, and highlight voices left out of the official negotiations.

Lost in Translation? US Foundations as Mediators between US Interests and the International Climate Policy Space

September 2, 2020

Given their historic ties with US foreign policy circles, their longstanding commitment to the amicable resolution of national differences, and their active role in forging an international climate regime and attendant "civil society," US foundations were ideally positioned to mediate between US domestic and foreign policy interests, and the international climate policy space. The study of their involvement in the international climate debate provides important insights into how US domestic politics feeds into the international climate policy process and, more specifically, how the alignment of international negotiations on the US position helped deliver the Paris outcome. Drawing on archival material from the Rockefeller Archive Center, this report looks at how philanthropic foundations' early involvement in the international climate debate was affected by domestic issues in the United States.

Embattled River:  The Hudson and Modern American Environmentalism

June 2, 2020

I spent several days in September 2015 at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) working in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Papers, especially the gubernatorial collection, investigating the Hudson River Valley Commission (HRVC), a largely unstudied state agency that the governor created in 1965. Thanks to considerable effort by archivist Monica Blank after my initial interview at RAC, I also worked in the documents Laurance S. Rockefeller compiled as chair of the (temporary) Hudson River Valley Commission, which are housed at the RAC. Given his longstanding interest in the Hudson River Valley, Laurance S. Rockefeller's papers include a large amount of material from the subsequent years of the "permanent" commission's existence. During the same month of my visit to RAC, I also spent considerable time working in the Hudson River Valley Commission Collection at the New York State Archives, Albany. Between these two collections, I was able to develop a thorough understanding of the commission's goals and operations.

"From Mosquitoes to People": Marston Bates and the Rockefeller Foundation International Health Division

July 2, 2019

This essay charts the career of the entomologist and popular author Marston Bates (1906-1974) within the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) between 1935 and 1952. Today, Bates is best remembered as a science communicator. Publishing over a dozen books on natural history and the environment, he helped bring ecological ideas to broader public audiences during the 1950s and 1960s. Not simply a popularizer of contemporary scientific concepts, Bates stood out for his critical commentary on the environmental problems of economic development, conservation, and global population growth, as well as the need for more integrative, cross-disciplinary approaches to understanding humans in nature. Long before becoming a public intellectual, however, he worked for the RF as a mosquito specialist, serving as director of International Health Division malaria and yellow fever laboratories in Albania, Egypt, and Colombia during the 1930s and 1940s. Bates' mid-career shift from researching mosquito ecology to writing about human ecology may seem to be a sudden left turn. A closer look at the archival record reveals the pivotal role played by the Rockefeller Foundation in shaping Bates' career trajectory and ideas about the environment. Furthermore, placing Bates' work in the context of his time with the RF reveals connections between twentieth-century U.S. environmental thought and international health projects.

Jackson Hole Wildlife Park: An Experiment to Bridge Tourism and Conservation

January 24, 2019

My paper documents the history of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park, created on Rockefeller-owned lands in northwestern Wyoming shortly after WWII. A collaboration between Laurance Rockefeller, president of Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc., the New York Zoological Society and the State of Wyoming, the park sought to educate the public about the need for conservation by creating a living exhibit of the West's major wild animals - primarily elk, bison, moose, antelope, and a variety of deer species. It was thought that if people could see these majestic animals in their natural environment versus the typical urban/suburban zoo, they would be more apt to become involved in the effort to save them and the habitats necessary for their survival. Almost simultaneously, the founders established a scientific research facility to enable studies of the area's animals, plants, watershed, and other features impacting the landscape. 

A History of Climate Action through Foundations’ Archives

May 29, 2018

After two years of intensive negotiations, 156 countries signed a Framework Convention on Climate Change at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Bert Bolin, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1988 to 1997, believed that it would not have happened if a "well-organized and scientifically credible assessment had not been available in 1990." In turn, the IPCC assessment was possible "only because assessments initiated by the US National Academy of Sciences and the international scientific community had begun a decade earlier." As stated by Bolin, "the emergence of the climate change issue was primarily scientifically driven." But how did the issue move from the realm of science to the realm of politics? Who were the agents of this process? A series of documents produced by scientists, NGO and foundation officers, preserved in archival collections at the Rockefeller Archive Center, provides previously unexplored information about how the climate change issue broke onto the international policy making agenda in the 1980s.

Sweet Blood: An Environmental History of Diabetes and Chronic Disease in America

October 6, 2017

Every day, millions of Americans prick their fingertips, feed blood into a glucose meter, and adjust their diet in a ritual to stay healthy. This is the diabetic way of life, what many older diabetics call having the "sweet blood." And it has become an American way of life, affecting about one in ten people with rates among minorities and the poor in double-digit percentages. The complications are serious and deadly—neuropathy, blindness, cardiovascular disease, and renal failure—with total costs around $245 billion for 2014 alone. Dr. Frank Vinicor, former American Diabetes Association president, has called diabetes "the Rodney Dangerfield of diseases": expensive to treat, hard to manage, and easy to ridicule.

Nature's Parkway: Landscape and Philanthropy at the Palisades Interstate Park, 1900-1930

January 1, 2017

Between the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century, the Palisades were transformed from a site of industrial excavation to a motorist's paradise. Driving that transformation was the conservationist vision of John D. Rockefeller Jr. (JDR Jr.). The particular type of conservation being practiced was shaped by JDR Jr.'s attempts to expand access to nature by building automobile roads within parks. Roads, JDR believed, were the best way to experience nature. Through his philanthropy the Palisades Interstate Park was reshaped to accommodate natureloving American motorist in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

The Road Taken: René Dubos' journey from microbiologist to ecologist

January 1, 2017

In May 1977, René Dubos composed a letter to the University of Georgia biologist Eugene Odum. Then aged 76, Dubos was at the height of his fame as a popular medical and scientific thinker. In a 50-year-career that had taken in a PhD in soil microbiology at Rutgers University, the isolation of the first antibacterial agents in Oswald Avery's laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, and pioneering studies of turberculosis and the role of intestinal microflora in the regulation of health and disease, the French-born medical researcher had increasingly decried short-term technological fixes that he feared might upset the delicate balance between humans and microbes. In this way, Dubos had come to be regarded as an apostle for the burgeoning environmental movement and a defender of the view of the earth as a delicate ecosystem. It was a view that he shared with Odum, not least because it was Odum who had brought the ecosystems concept to wider popular audiences through his 1953 book Fundamentals of Ecology, and who had helped establish ecology as a scientific discipline in American universities. In theory then, the researchers had much in common. However in 1977 when Dubos discovered that Odum was to be presented with the Tyler Award for thinkers who had made a significant contribution to ecology and environmental science -- the same award that Dubos had been presented with the previous year -- the Frenchman blanched. "You are for me Mr Ecology," he informed Odum. "Although I know I am not an ecologist, I have repeatedly been involved in scientific problems which have ecological components. This is happening once more in an enterprise that will certainly be my last professional activity."

Researching Uganda's national parks at the RAC

January 1, 2016

My research at the Rockefeller Archive Center was conducted for my doctoral thesis which examines the history of the northern lowlands of Uganda's Albertine Rift Valley since the mid-nineteenth century. This area, which roughly corresponds to the modern-day district of Buliisa, has recently come to national and international attention as the location of some of the largest onshore crude oil fields discovered in Africa in the last few decades. Since the discoveries were made in 2006, conflict and tensions have arisen between and among communities, the state, and multi-national oil companies, over land, compensation and the anticipated revenues from the exploitation of this resource. But the lowlands have long been a site of struggle between different actors. It has for some time been the focus of particularly palpable, virulent, nervous and defensive strain of ethnic nativism. My thesis is a historical exploration of the ontological insecurity that has historically driven ethnic nativism and has itself been fuelled by ambiguity over ethnic self-identification and belonging in the valley. This study explores why this marginal place and the social identifications of the peoples who live there have become sites of unusually intense struggle.

Transnational Connections, International Conservation Co-operation, and the Construction of the National Park Idea as 'America's Best Idea' during the Cold War

January 1, 2016

My dissertation "Transnational Connections, International Conservation Cooperation, and the Construction of the National Park Idea as 'America's Best Idea' during the Cold War" examines the international work of the US National Park Service, the influence and context of transnational national park co-operation, and the Cold War meaning and importance of the national park idea more broadly. The study is centered on two broad questions, focusing on how the national park idea became constructed as an "American" idea globally and what larger themes were connected to this, and the significance of transnational influences and international connections to the development of the national park idea.

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