The Gilded Age is regarded as a time of misery for the American worker. Exposes like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle are famous for their tales of horrid working conditions. Meanwhile, an emerging aristocracy grew increasingly wealthy from the spoils of industry. This class became known as the robber barons.
The foremost of these was John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil. At the turn of the 20th century, he was America’s most hated man. Scathing exposes were published about him and Theodore Roosevelt put Standard Oil at the center of his trust busting efforts, which led to the company’s breakup in 1911.
Despite his bad reputation and the questionable ways in which he made his money, John D. Rockefeller changed the world for the better. In many ways, he is responsible for the things we take for granted today. Here are 10 ways this infamous robber baron improved our lives.
10. He Invented the Modern Corporation
Corporations have great influence over our lives. Their political power is controversial, but their mass production of cheap goods is not. Modern mass production has improved the lives of rich and poor alike. Because of it, the poor today have access to more resources than the wealthy of the past.
This is largely a result of methods Rockefeller created at Standard Oil. He showed the power of producing in bulk to lower unit costs, which left rivals unable to compete. He demonstrated the superiority of combining assets into a single, company-owned supply chain. He absorbed competitors and local Standard Oil branches into a centrally controlled organization led by competent executives.
These were innovations modern corporations now use to make themselves first-rate producers of the goods and services we rely on.
9. He Showed the Power of Recycling
Rockefeller was not an environmentalist, but he was a pioneer in the art of recycling. In the early oil industry, the only byproduct anyone saw a use for was kerosene, which was used for lighting. Kerosene was only 60% of the product that came from refining crude oil. No one knew what to do with the other 40%, most notably gasoline, which was dumped in rivers.
To Rockefeller, this was wasteful, and part of Standard Oil’s success came from finding out how to use the oil byproducts that competitors threw away. Some recycled oil products became railroad grease. Gasoline was used to fuel Standard’s plants.
Rockefeller tried to find a use for every oil product to reduce waste and increase revenue. This was good for the environment. Unlike so many of his peers, he didn’t needlessly pollute. His success showed everyone the benefit of finding ways to use waste products instead of dumping them in a river.
8. He Founded the University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is one of America’s best schools. From Milton Friedman to Manhattan Project members, it has hosted more than a few famous scholars, and boasts an uncountable number of prestigious alumni.
Fewer people know that John D. Rockefeller founded this institution. He was a devout Baptist throughout his life, and several ministers competed for his money, hoping to use it to set up a leading Baptist university. New York and Chicago emerged as the contenders to host it. Frederick Gates, the man in charge of his charities, eventually sold Rockefeller on Chicago, partially because of what was regarded as the poor state of Baptist education in the region.
Rockefeller donated $600,000 to the project (over $25 million in 2017). Much to his horror, he would wind up spending much more than that, but within a decade, it became one of America’s leading centers of higher education. It has remained so ever since.
7. He Transformed Medical Schooling
Medicine made tremendous strides in the 19th century, but it was still far from the profession we know today. Superstition was still rampant. At the turn of the 20th century, the field was dominated by a debate between homeopaths (who claimed to cure illness by using remedies that caused the same effects as the disease) and allopaths (who claimed to cure illness by using remedies that caused different effects than the disease). Rockefeller himself had no problem with this. He was partial to homeopathy and kept a homeopathic doctor in his entourage.
Frederick Gates, however, balked at both the homeopaths and allopaths. He envisioned a scientific approach to medicine that discarded them both. The first step was to improve the way doctors were trained. In the late 19th century, the standards at most medical schools were very low. Almost anyone was admitted. Most of the schools did not even require a high school education.
With the power of Rockefeller’s purse, these medical schools were dragged into modernity. Using the Johns Hopkins Medical School as the blueprint, admission and teaching standards were greatly improved, as was the curriculum. Rockefeller would donate $50 million to the project, a staggering sum worth over $720 million in 2017.
This money changed medical schooling from top to bottom and created the well-respected medical profession we rely on so much today. It was all the more ironic given that Rockefeller’s father was a conman who posed as a doctor.
6. He Transformed Medical Research
Medical schooling was in a bad place at the turn of the 20th century, but so was the level of medical knowledge in general. Today, we take scientific, peer-reviewed medical studies for granted. This was not the case back then.
To bring medicine into the next century, Frederick Gates urged Rockefeller to establish a medical research center. He eventually agreed. The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was born. With it came an approach to medicine far different than anything before, one which would eject quacks from the field.
For the first time in the United States, diseases were studied and understood in a laboratory setting, revealing their causes and cures. Eventually, the institute became Rockefeller University. Its groundbreaking research continues in everything from infectious diseases to mental illnesses. For example, Rockefeller University identified the link between depression and serotonin levels in the brain.
5. He Began the Eradication of Hookworm
100 years ago, Hookworm was rampant in the southern United States. It is a debilitating disease, with the intestinal parasites sucking up nutrients and leaving their victim anemic. 40% of the South was infected, which took a great toll on the economy and standard of living in the region.
Most tragic was that for years after the discovery of Hookworm in the South, nothing was done, even though the drugs to cure it were cheap. Many people in power denied that the disease existed. Finally, the man who discovered the epidemic, Charles Wardell Stiles, secured a meeting with key people in Rockefeller’s orbit. He agreed to a sum of $1 million (almost $28 million today) to eradicate the disease.
A great campaign of public education and drug distribution followed. In a few years, Hookworm had been drastically reduced. Everyone recognized the problem and solution, leading to its eventual eradication. Thanks to Rockefeller, Hookworm simply is not a problem in the United States today. This campaign became the blueprint still in use in fighting the disease around the world.
4. He Advanced Black Education
Rockefeller was not a civil rights activist, but compared to many of his peers, he was concerned for black welfare. A big problem for African Americans was the lack of access to a quality education, an issue which persists today. For black women, the problem was especially severe. To combat it, a small college for women was founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1881. “Small” would actually be an understatement, since the college was housed in the basement of a church in Atlanta.
Fortunately, the founders would have a meeting with the most prominent Baptist, John D. Rockefeller. He donated to the school and built a proper campus. It would later be named Spelman College in honor of his wife. Beginning with the education of freed slaves, the college survives. Its students took part in the Civil Rights Movement.
His early work at Spelman was later expanded into more robust programs through his General Education Board. Though this is an issue that remains today, Rockefeller’s efforts were an important step in the advancement of African Americans.
3. He Improved Labor Laws
Unlike earlier items on this list, this was unintentional, but it was still an important development in modern life. Contrary to popular belief, workers at Standard Oil were treated well. They were paid above average wages during Rockefeller’s tenure. However, he had no tolerance for labor unions. Should he get even a hint of unionization, he would act promptly to put it down.
As a result of this attitude, which he passed on to his son, Rockefeller found himself in the worst crisis of his life. This was the incident at Colorado Fuel and Iron on April 20th, 1914, which became known as the Ludlow Massacre. Part of an ongoing strike by the company’s poorly-treated coal miners, it was a battle in all but name. It even featured an armored car called the “Death Special.” 18 people were killed, 12 of them children. The incident spiraled into more violence that became known as the Ten Days’ War. The tension only eased with the arrival of federal troops.
Though the CFI investment was controlled by his son, it was Rockefeller who had purchased the company. Safe to say, it was a public relations nightmare. It forced John D. Rockefeller Jr. to go to Colorado to see what was happening in the coal mines, which he had previously disregarded.
The Ludlow Massacre was one of the inspirations behind the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. It guaranteed the liberties of unionization that had been denied to workers beforehand and which had been a cause of the unrest. In this way, Rockefeller’s investment indirectly led to the more stable relationship between labor and capital we expect today. It was an ironic twist, given his lifelong aversion to organized labor.
2. He Was a Grandfather of the Green Revolution
There are over 7 billion people in the world. It is unlikely that many could be supported without the agricultural surplus of the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century. The Green Revolution has been controversial. Its detractors often cite environmental concerns, but it has been estimated to have saved a billion lives, primarily through the work of Norman Borlaug.
Few people knew of Borlaug in his lifetime, but fewer remember that the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored him. Founded by Rockefeller in 1913, it became the umbrella organization for his earlier charities. It would go on to be a chief financier of the Green Revolution. The revolution led to increased crop yields, which are widely credited with averting famine in India and Pakistan. The ultimate result was that impoverished regions became self-sufficient in food production.
1. He Created the Modern Charity
Many of Rockefeller’s contributions to modern life came through his philanthropies. The most powerful, though, was how he transformed the very concept of charity. Prior to him, charitable efforts took the form of random, unorganized giveaways. Rockefeller considered this approach to be wasteful.
His charities were organized to get the best result possible. He was the richest man in history, but he was always frugal with his money and wanted to see it well-spent. Permanent improvements were expected so that issues would be cured at their source. This is the same approach that the most well-known charities, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, use today. The activities of these charities that so many people rely on originated with Rockefeller’s approach. In another of those ironies that were common in his life, both the modern corporation and modern charity were created by America’s most hated robber baron.
Further reading: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Senior