Biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

I have just read the biography ‘Titan’ of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow. Rockefeller was a contemporary of Andrew Carnegie who I wrote about in a previous post, being just four years younger. Rockefeller became the richest man in the world after Carnegie had occupied that position. This book is a biography and not an autobiography and that is not an accident. While Carnegie had a talent and an inclination for writing and freely revealed many things about himself Rockefeller was extremely secretive. Given this it is surprising that so much is known about his life. At one time he gave extensive interviews to a journalist and Chernow was able to access the transcripts of these. He also engaged in a form of reverse engineering. Rockefeller wrote many letters but in doing so he tended to conceal the most important things. By contrast the writers of the letters he received were often less discrete and so Chernow could use those as a source of information about their recipient. Like Carnegie Rockefeller grew up in modest circumstances. However in another way his family background was very different. While Carnegie grew up in an atmosphere of honesty and hard work Rockefeller’s father ‘Big Bill’ was a swindler, quack doctor and bigamist. He used to abandon his wife and children for months at a time, although he did pay their bills when he returned after an unspecified length of time. The family frequently moved house due to the schemes of the father. It was very important for Rockefeller to achieve financial independence from his father. It was also important for him to fulfill moral standards which his father had violated. He was a dutiful father.

Rockefeller was very religious and his wife even more so. He belonged to the Baptist church and starting from a young age supported the church he went to with work, money and fundraising. He was strictly against drinking, smoking and even less obviously sinful things such as theatre and opera. The children were mostly confined at home, being taught by private tutors. The regime was very strict so that, for instance, a child who ate two pieces of cheese on one day received extensive reproaches. The mother stated that no woman needs more than two dresses. The children were encouraged to earn their own money. At a time when the family was already rich the parents concealed this fact from the children.

In his professional life Rockefeller was very civilized on the surface. On the other hand he was often very ruthless in secret. He usually observed the letter of the law although not always. On the other hand he did not hesitate to destroy the business of his competitors by all legal means when it suited him. Reading about these things reminded me of the methods of Bill Gates, which I read about in a biography some years ago. Rockefeller worked with all kinds of underhand tricks and perhaps he inherited this part of his character from his father. This means for me that I regard Rockefeller as a rather unpleasant character and in my judgment he is almost at the opposite pole from Carnegie. Rockefeller did not see his own acts as immoral, or at least he did not clearly admit it to himself. He believed that God was on his side and that he was working for good. In creating the monopoly of Standard Oil he believed he was working against the excessive instability of the oil market arising from unlimited competition. In his opinion he was not acting the way he did in order to become as rich as possible – his riches were just a byproduct of his doing the right thing. I find Rockefeller very strange character, with a complex mix of characteristics which I find positive or negative. There are aspects of his behaviour which I find admirable. There is the way in which he worked so consistently in order to achieve the things he believed in. There is his strict adherence to the religious principles which he believed to be valid. There is the fact that in a certain way he treated most people around him with respect. What I do not like is that he had little respect for science. He thought that a businessman should not waste his time with science since he could always hire a scientist if he needed one. His route to success and riches was through playing social games and I do not see that his professional activity led to technical advances, another contrast to Carnegie.

A well-known characteristic of Rockefeller is his philanthropy. He admired the corresponding activities of Carnegie but privately said that Carnegie was vain. He, Rockefeller, went to great lengths to stay in the background in the context of his philanthropic gifts. He generally did not want things named after him just because he had paid for them. He invested tremendous effort in trying to decide what were the most valuable causes he should contribute to. In this sense it seems that for him giving away money was more strenuous than earning it. Eventually, after the strain was damaging his health he delegated a lot of his philanthropic activity. An important principle of his was that he would only give money if it was matched by a certain sum raised for the same project from other sources. In the end he was often not too successful in implementing this policy – he was not able to stand up to the pressure from the beneficiaries. A good example of this were his huge contributions to the beginnings of University of Chicago. Rockefeller had a key influence on establishing medical research in the United States. He founded what is now called the Rockefeller University. He made a very important contribution to fighting hookworm in the southern US and later in other parts of the world. He himself believed in homeopathy but due to the fact that the people who managed his philanthropy were more enlightened than he was the money donated contributed essentially to establishing evidence-based medicine in the US and weakening the influence of homeopathy. Thus in a way he came to doing exactly the opposite of what his father had done.

This is a very high quality biography and contains a host of interesting things which I did not even mention.


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