Rockefeller, John Davison

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Rockefeller, John Davison

John Davison Rockefeller, 1839–1937, American industrialist and philanthropist, b. Richford, N.Y. He moved (1853) with his family to a farm near Cleveland and at age 16 went to work as a bookkeeper. Frugal and industrious, Rockefeller became (1859) a partner in a produce business, and four years later, with his partners, he established an oil refinery, entering into an industry already thriving in Cleveland.

In 1870 he and his associates—including S. V. Harkness, H. M. Flagler, and his brother William—organized the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, capitalized at $1 million. By enforcing strict economy and efficiency, through mergers and agreements with competitors, by ruthlessly crushing weaker competitors, and by accumulating large capital reserves, Rockefeller soon dominated the American oil-refining industry. Rebate agreements, which he forced from the railroads, and the control of pipeline distribution of refined oil strengthened the near monopoly of the Standard Oil Company.

In 1882 the diverse holdings of the various members of Rockefeller's combination were tied together into the Standard Oil trust. Court action compelled the trust to dissolve 10 years later, but in a few years the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey was chartered as a holding company, with a capitalization of $110 million. Rockefeller was also prominent in the affairs of railroads and banks, being second only to J. P. Morgan in the domain of finance. When the United States Steel Corporation was formed (1901), Rockefeller was one of the directors. In 1911 a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court required the holding company to dissolve and its directors to relinquish their control over the numerous subsidiaries. Rockefeller personally ruled over his enormous petroleum business until 1911, when he retired with a fabulous fortune.

Intensely religious, Rockefeller had an interest in philanthropy as deep as his interest in business. He gave generously to the Baptist Church, to the YMCA, and to the Anti-Saloon League. He also founded (1892) the Univ. of Chicago. The most prominent of the philanthropic enterprises to which he eventually turned over some $500 million were the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, founded (1901) in New York City and since 1965 known as Rockefeller Univ.; the General Education Board, organized (1902) to make gifts to various educational and research agencies; the Rockefeller Foundation, established (1913) to promote public health and to further the medical, natural, and social sciences; and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, founded (1918) in memory of his wife, for the furthering of child welfare and the social sciences. He wrote Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (1909).

Son and Grandsons

His son John Davison Rockefeller, Jr., 1874–1960, b. Cleveland, grad. Brown, 1897, took over active management of his father's interests in 1911 and engaged in numerous philanthropies. Riverside Church in New York City was built through his gifts. He also gave vast sums for religious projects, for scientific investigation, and for the restoration of historic monuments. Among his most notable philanthropies were the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, Va., and the donation of the site for the United Nations headquarters in New York City. He founded (1931) and helped plan Rockefeller Center in New York City, which the Rockefeller interests completed in 1939. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had six children, and his five sons all became famous in various fields of endeavor.

His eldest son, John Davison Rockefeller 3d, 1906–78, b. New York City, grad. Princeton, 1929, was active in the management of family interests as well as art collecting and the support of numerous civic and philanthropic ventures, such as Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the United Negro College Fund, and the Population Council.

His second son was Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (see Rockefeller, Nelson Aldrich).

Laurance Spellman Rockefeller, 1910–2004, b. New York City, grad. Princeton, 1932, was noted for his involvement in conservation and the protection of wildlife. He funded the expansion of Grand Teton National Park and promoted creation and expansion of numerous other national parks. An astute investor, he was the principal backer of Eddie Rickenbacker when the latter founded Eastern Airlines in the 1930s, and was subsequently an early underwriter of a number of successful companies.

Winthrop Rockefeller, 1912–73, b. New York City, attended (1931–34) Yale and then went into investment management. Interested in agriculture, he became the owner of a farm in Arkansas noted for its experiments in animal husbandry. A Republican, he served as governor of Arkansas from 1967 to 1970.

David Rockefeller, 1915–2017, b. New York City, grad. Harvard, 1936, Ph.D. Univ. of Chicago, 1940, joined what became the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1948 and headed it from 1969 until his retirement in 1981. He acted as spokesman for the U.S. business community on several occasions. His Memoirs were published in 2002.

Jay Rockefeller (John Davison Rockefeller 4th), 1937–, b. New York City, son of John D. Rockefeller 3d, was elected governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 1976; reelected in 1980, he was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984 and reelected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008. He chaired the committees on veterans' affairs (1993–1995; 2001–3) and commerce, science, and transportation (2009–14) and the select committee on intelligence (2007–9).


See biographies of J. D. Rockefeller by A. Nevins (rev. ed. 1959), J. Abels (1965), and R. Chernow (1998); J. T. Flynn, God's Gold (1932, repr. 1971); W. Inglis, John D. Rockefeller Interview, 1917–1920 (1989); studies by D. Frost (1987) and J. Harr and P. Johnson (1988); biography of J. D. Rockefeller, Jr., by R. B. Fosdick (1956) and of Laurance Rockefeller by R. Winks (1997).

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