Backstage: the relationship between the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Health Organization, Part I: 1940s-1960s

Public Health. 2014 Feb;128(2):129-40. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2013.11.010. Epub 2014 Jan 10.


In recent years, there has been a growing debate about what role foundations should play in global health governance generally, and particularly vis-à-vis the World Health Organization (WHO). Much of this discussion revolves around today's gargantuan philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and its sway over the agenda and modus operandi of global health. Yet such pre-occupations are not new. The Rockefeller Foundation (RF), the unparalleled 20th century health philanthropy heavyweight, both profoundly shaped WHO and maintained long and complex relations with it, even as both institutions changed over time. This article examines the WHO-RF relationship from the 1940s to the 1960s, tracing its ebbs and flows, key moments, challenges, and quandaries, concluding with a reflection on the role of the Cold War in both fully institutionalizing the RF's dominant disease-control approach and limiting its smaller social medicine efforts, even as the RF's quotidian influence at WHO diminished.

Keywords: History of international health; Philanthropy and health; Rockefeller Foundation; World Health Organization.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Foundations / history*
  • Foundations / organization & administration
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Interinstitutional Relations*
  • World Health Organization / history*
  • World Health Organization / organization & administration