Long history of philanthropy and public health: Rockefeller Foundation campaigns in early 1900s

Barbara Shubinski

With the outbreak of COVID-19 stretching the capacity of governments and civil society around the world, philanthropies too are considering their role in the crisis. Barbara Shubinski, Director of Research and Education at the Rockefeller Archive Center reflects on two historic examples of philanthropy’s response to public health in the midst of outbreaks.

The current global health crisis has pushed awareness of public health systems front and centre. For insights, many are looking toward the 1918 influenza pandemic; however, what few realise is that the building blocks for today’s public health systems were actually laid out before 1918. In 1909, Rockefeller philanthropy launched a campaign against hookworm disease in the US South, then again less than ten years later during an outbreak of tuberculosis in France. From these two historic cases, we can learn much about strategic effective responses, public health messaging, and cooperation – as well as philanthropy’s central role in championing them.

Public health as persuasion

‘A pandemic is a communications emergency as much as a medical crisis,’ wrote the New Yorker recently, analysing the outbreak of COVID-19 in Seattle. The city’s relative success in flattening its curve lay in its public health messaging, the New Yorker suggested.

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