Dr. Kevin Jones-Kern, Bowling Green State University

If you asked any anthropologist to nominate off the top of his head some of the molding personalities or crucial moments for the field of anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s, you would be certain to receive a variety of answers. Some might offer an image of the venerable Franz Boas training Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and numerous other budding anthropologists from his department at Columbia University. Others might offer the classic work of Reo Fortune in Dobu, Raymond Firth in Tikopia, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown in New South Wales, or any of the other major ethnographic surveys conducted in the South Pacific during this time. Some physical anthropology partisans may even cite the crucible of research and training under Earnest Hooton at Harvard University which produced nearly all of the major figures in biological anthropology's institutional and theoretical expansion in the following decades. Of all the different potential answers you might solicit, however, you would not receive a single nomination for the work of Edmund E. Day, Beardsley Ruml, or Sydnor Walker. This is quite understandable, as none of the anthropologists you interview are likely to have ever heard any of these names before. None of these people conducted a single day of fieldwork, taught a single anthropologist, or wrote a single anthropological treatise. Yet is was the efforts of Day, Ruml, Walker, and the other members of the social science division of the Rockefeller Foundation that helped make all of the above-mentioned work of Boas, Fortune, Firth, Radcliffe-Brown and Hooton possible. For a brief period during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Rockefeller philanthropies flirted with, and ultimately abandoned, the field of anthropology. During those crucial years and through their modest grants, however, they dramatically affected the course of anthropology.

The basic story of the Rockefeller Foundation is well-known. As part of the "Gospel of Wealth" philosophy embraced by many of the great business tycoons of the late 1800s and early 1900s, people like Mellon, Rockefeller, and Carnegie created philanthropic organizations to influence positively the increasingly industrial society they had helped create. Rockefeller's benefactions were wide-ranging, including projects in the medical and natural sciences, public health, and the general humanities. A special focus of Rockefeller's philanthropic interest, however, was the burgeoning of the fields of social science. J. D. Rockefeller felt that if the new fields of political science, economics, sociology, and the like were only as well-established as the natural sciences and could discover the basic laws of society, the further acquisition of new knowledge that would result could ultimately be used to improve the conditions of human life around the planet. The problem was that a chronic lack of funds in these new academic disciplines hampered practical research efforts and made their increasingly theoretical work more "remote from pressing current problems" (Rockefeller Foundation, 1933a, p. 38). For this reason, a major focus of Rockefeller's new Foundation, and especially its allied philanthropy, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, was the promotion of the social sciences. These groups sought to accomplish this goal by using a few standard techniques. 

First and foremost in the early years of the Foundation was the development of several university centers of social science research in various parts of the world. The stated goal of this practice was creating "an easy interchange of faculty and students engaged in the study of common problems," and "securing recognition from university administrators that research facilities and opportunities are essential for the social sciences" Not only would the non-academic world profit from the practical research thus spawned, but the indirect values of such a program were seen as nothing less than the "creation of international understanding and good will"(Rockefeller Foundation, 1933a, p. 39).

In conjunction with the support of institutional centers, the Spelman Memorial--and later the Rockefeller Foundation which absorbed it in 1929--also chose to concentrate much of its social science funding on fellowships, grants-in-aid, and fluid research funds for worthy projects. This rather open-ended, non-directed approach prevailed throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, a kind of "golden age" of broad-based Rockefeller support for the social sciences. By 1933, however, the reality of the world-wide depression and the perceived need to focus the more constricted resources of the Foundation on specific national and international issues darkening the world at that time led to a major overhaul of the Foundation's philanthropic program. Relatively munificent funding for the social sciences continued after this point, but in a more controlled and directed manner. One of the casualties of this restructuring was the already limited Rockefeller support for anthropology (Rockefeller Foundation, 1933b, pp. 19, 64).

Despite the Rockefeller Foundation's extraordinary generosity to the social sciences, the field of anthropology received relatively little of this largesse. Perhaps because of anthropology's relative lack of practical application compared to its sister social sciences, the Foundation's approach toward the discipline was ambivalent at best. The board never accorded anthropology the same lucrative "field of concentration" status that it gave to such pragmatic areas as economics, international relations, or social work. Nevertheless, in a greatly scaled-down manner, during the late 1920s and early 1930s it experimented with the same kind of funding strategies as it pursued with more favored fields. The board appropriated relatively small grants to bolster institutional development in a few select universities with "an active interest in research and graduate training" (Rockefeller Foundation, 1933a, p. 41). In addition, they voted fellowships, grants-in-aid and research money to specific projects they deemed urgently important or otherwise worthy. This flirtation with anthropology, however, was short-lived. Only four years after the larger Foundation absorbed the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fund in 1929, the Board's radically adjusted and reoriented social science philanthropy explicitly precluded anthropology from any future funding. While some existing grant recipients were allowed fixed-term, tapering extensions over the next few years, the Foundation gave no new grants to the field, and ceased funding anthropological projects altogether by 1940. Thus, of the nearly 55 million dollars the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and the Rockefeller Foundation gave to the Social Sciences between 1918 and 1940, only 2.2 million--just four percent--went to the fields of cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology combined (Rockefeller Foundation, 1938a).

At this point one might reasonably wonder why, if the Rockefeller Foundation's support for anthropology during the 1920s and 1930s was so brief and so tepid, should any lasting significance be ascribed to their involvement. This is a fair question. On the surface, a four percent share of the social science pie sounds like a rather negligible amount, especially when one considers that this amount included several hundred thousand dollars for projects not strictly anthropological in nature or of such dubious scientific value as a grant for a German Science Institute's study of the "anthropological constitution of German people" and studies in race biology at the University of Hawaii. Yet even granting that Rockefeller support for anthropology was relatively minor, the field benefited out of all proportion to the sums of money involved. Indeed, were it not for the grants provided by the Rockefeller foundation, the history of the field would likely have been extraordinarily different.

Take the example of cultural anthropology. The Rockefeller Foundation supplied tens of thousands of dollars to the Columbia University and the University of Chicago anthropology departments to bolster and expand their research and training capabilities. While Columbia's program was already well-established, Chicago's anthropology program was still seeking the prestige of a premier institution for graduate instruction. The more than $100,000 they received helped vault them into the place of prominence they enjoyed afterward and put countless graduates into anthropological careers (Rockefeller Foundation, 1933c).

More important still were the Rockefeller Foundation's grants to the Australian National Research Council for the purposes of research and institutional development in anthropology. The behind-the-scenes story of Rockefeller support for anthropological research in Australia and the South Pacific is extremely interesting, involving as it does such elements as racism, eugenics, communist politics, embezzlement, and even suicide. Unfortunately, it is far too afield of the purpose of this paper, which focuses on the results of Rockefeller support, to be fully considered here. (paper concerning the strange history of the founding of Australian anthropological institutions is forthcoming). These end results, however, were nothing less than the existence of institutional cultural anthropology in Australia itself. 

According to documents concerning the Rockefeller Foundation's Australian anthropology projects, cultural anthropology as we know it in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific would simply not have been able to develop without the intervention of Rockefeller dollars. It was Rockefeller money that enabled the University of Sydney to found its Department of Anthropology and to bring A.R. Radcliffe-Brown in as its chair. This department proved to be a crucial base of operations for ethnographic fieldwork in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and numerous islands throughout the South Pacific over the following decades. In addition, the Sydney anthropology department trained an entire generation of ethnologists of the South Pacific, whose works are still being cited today. It was Rockefeller money that allowed the founding and continued publication of Oceania, the primary scholarly journal for anthropological fieldwork in the South Pacific. It was Rockefeller Fellowships, grants, and grants-in-aid that made possible much of the most important cultural anthropology field work of the era, including Reo Fortune's Dobu studies and Raymond Firth's work in Tikopia. Other recipients of these research grants and fellowships included T.G.H. Strehlow, A.P. Elkin, W.E.H. Stanner, H. I. Hogbin, and more than a score of other investigators. In the first ten years after the Rockefeller Foundation began to fund research in the South Pacific, these grant recipients had published over 170 written pieces based on their research (Elkin, 1938, pp. 318-327). Many of these, admittedly, were of minor importance, yet many others have proven to be of lasting significance to the field of anthropology. A cursory look through the social science citation index reveals that written work based on Rockefeller-funded research during the 20 years after its first grant have been cited 457 times since 1990, for an average of almost exactly one reference a week. Clearly, the dividends of Rockefeller funding for cultural anthropology are still being realized today. Yet this was not the only way in which the Rockefeller Foundation shaped modern American anthropology (Rockefeller Foundation, 1938b).

The field of physical anthropology may have been even more profoundly affected by Rockefeller benevolence. Just emerging into fully-professionalized status in 1930 with the formation of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the field was still quite small and malleable. A motley assemblage of anatomists, eugenists, and anthropologists, the field had few full-time practitioners and few university departments to call its own. The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Washington University in St. Louis, and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts shared the research and training load for the field in the United States. Historians of the field have often remarked that over the course of the 1930s, Harvard University's department under the direction of Earnest Hooton became the unquestioned leader in the shaping of the discipline, creating what would become the standard graduate curriculum and graduating nearly all of the country's new Ph.D.s and the next generation's practitioners. These Harvard-trained biological anthropologists would go on to head most of the new physical anthropology graduate departments that sprang up after World War II, duly installing the Harvard curriculum when they arrived (Spencer, 1981, pp. 533-534).

Yet, this end was not an inevitability. One of the major reasons why all this was possible was the more than $100,000 worth of grants made to the Harvard Department of Anthropology in the early 1930s, a grant which allowed Harvard alone among American universities to admit and support large numbers of graduate students. While Hooton's research in race and criminal anthropology has since been discredited, it was this legacy of his curriculum and his students that more than any other thing shaped physical anthropology as a graduate institution in the United States. And as Earnest Hooton forthrightly admitted in his annual reports to his benefactors, it would not have been possible to this scale without the crucial funds from the Rockefeller Foundation (Hooten, 1936, p. 38).

Although the Rockefeller Foundation gave only half-hearted attention to the field of anthropology, the repercussions of its relatively modest involvement were profound and long-lasting. From sponsorship and publication of classic research studies, to the training of a generation of ethnologists, to the solidification of sturdy university departments that trained future generations of anthropologists, the Rockefeller Foundation greatly affected the course of the field spurned in 1934. Thus, while Beardsley Ruml, Edmund Day, Sydnor Walker and their peers quietly working at the New York offices of the Rockefeller Foundation are not generally recognized as important figures in the history of the anthropology, perhaps they should be.


Elkin, A.P. 1938. Anthropological Research in Australia and the Western Pacific, 1927-1937. Oceania 8(3): 306-327.

Hooton, Earnest. 1936. Report on Activities. Rockefeller Archives RG 1.1, Series 200S, Harvard University Subseries, Box 4, Folder 4047. 16 January 1936.

Rockefeller Foundation. 1933a. The Social Sciences from Past Program and Proposed Future Program. Rocekfeller Archives RG 3, Series 910, Social Science Program and Policy Reports Subseries, Box 2, Folder 14. 11 April 1933.

_____________. 1933b. "Interim Report of Activities of the Rockefeller Foundation. " Rockefeller Archives RG 3, Series 910, Social Science Program and Policy Reports Subseries, Box 2, Pro11. 13 December 1933.

_____________. 1933c. "Grants in Anthropology. " Rockefeller Archives RG 3, Series 910, Program and Policy--Anthropology Subseries, Box 3, Folder 25. 31 March 1933.

_____________. 1938a. "Appropriations for the Social Sciences, 1 Jan 1929 to 31 December 1937." Rockefeller Archives RG 3, Series 910, Social Science Program and Policy Reports Subseries, Box 2, Folder 15, Pro 24a. January 1938.

_____________. 1938b. "Final Report for Twelve-Year Funding." Rockefeller Archives RG 1.1, Series 410D, Australian National Research Council Subseries, Box 4, Folder 36. 7 July 1938.

Spencer, Frank. 1981. "The Rise of Academic Physical Anthropology in the United States (1880-1980): A Historical Overview." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 56: 353-364.

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