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The Rockefeller Chronicle

By Anne Bennett Swingle

For the first half of the 20th century, the research center founded by America's most powerful oil baron was all bound up with the School of Medicine.

The Rockefeller Institute from the East River, 1920

The Rockefeller Institute from the East River, 1920

In the summer of 1897 as Frederick Gates, a former Baptist minister who had become John D. Rockefeller's most trusted advisor, vacationed with his family on Lake Liberty in the Catskill Mountains, he began perusing William Osler's Principles and Practice of Medicine. Gates was fascinated with the scholarly approach to diagnosing and treating disease laid out by Johns Hopkins Hospital's first physician-in-chief. And yet, he hungered for more. "To a layman like me demanding cures, [Osler] had no word of comfort," Gates wrote later.

The key to curing disease, Gates believed, lay in scientific research. He took that idea to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who would shortly take over the family fortune, and Rockefeller Jr. clearly got the message. Four years later, on a March evening in 1901, as he dined with two New York physician-friends, Christian Herter and Emmett Holt, Rockefeller Jr. told them he was planning to create an institution devoted solely to medical research. Who, he asked them, could lead such an organization? Both doctors shot back the same name: William Welch of Johns Hopkins.

Welch by then was the world's most preeminent pathologist. He had been the first dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and in medical circles was considered dean of American physicians. Herter, who had apprenticed in Welch's storied pathology laboratory, wrote to his mentor on March 15, 1901, asking Welch to become the first president of the Board of Scientific Directors of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City.

Welch's acceptance propelled the 51-year-old portly pathologist to an even higher realm-the rarefied world of philanthropy, trusteeship and foundation service. The role would preoccupy him for much of the rest of his life. It would also serve to establish an institutional link that would continue for most of the first half of the 20th century. Right from the beginning, Johns Hopkins played a key role in shaping the Rockefeller Institute, and over the succeeding decades, some of Rockefeller's most influential faculty and board members would come from the Baltimore institution.

Nancy Ellicott, the first superintendent of nursing.

Nancy Ellicott, the first superintendent of nursingBelow: The three greats: Simon Flexner, William Welch and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
The two places had much in common: Both were the inspiration of laymen, Johns Hopkins and John D. Rockefeller. And both were products of a new sort of largesse devoted to the era's rapidly evolving science. But mostly, the tight connection between "The Hopkins" and "The Rockefeller" was forged by their common ideals regarding biomedical research.

As the 20th century began, only a few dozen scientists across the country, most of them trained in Europe, were engaged in original investigation. What's more, only a handful of universities-Hopkins, Harvard, Penn, Chicago and Michigan-could legitimately be considered centers of medical inquiry. In 1902, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research joined this elite group. Completely independent of any university, Rockefeller was modeled along the lines of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. It had no graduate education and no teaching, but allowed investigators to work in a scattering of laboratories unfettered by an academic routine.

One of Welch's first tasks when he signed on as head of the Rockefeller board was to recruit a director for the new institution. He put forth the name of Simon Flexner, who had trained with him at Hopkins. At 40, Flexner had traveled the world studying epidemic diseases and now was a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But Flexner relinquished that secure lifetime post to head up the Rockefeller, and it turned out to be a good move.
Over the next 32 years as director, he would earn a reputation as a fine scientist who made headway in understanding how polio was transmitted and developed a serum against spinal meningitis. But what made Flexner truly legendary was his skill as an administrator. Tall, thin and slightly built, he was soft-spoken and reserved. And yet he had a keen eye for good researchers and an impressible ability to manage the group of brainy and adventurous scientists he brought on board. Many of them were Hopkins men. Among the School of Medicine physicians who joined the Rockefeller staff or board during Flexner's tenure were Eugene Opie, Peyton Rous, Alan Chesney, William S. Tillett, Thomas Rivers, George Whipple and Louise Pearce.
The Rockefeller Institute's first permanent building-Founders Hall-opened in 1906 on 13 acres of farmland on the East River between 64th and 68th streets. Flexner organized it around a number of laboratories, each headed by an independent researcher. Then he immediately turned to his next priority: creating a hospital. "This hospital should be modern and fully equipped, but it need not be large," he wrote. "It should attempt to provide only for selected cases of disease."

The three greats: Simon Flexner, William Welch and John D. Rockefeller Jr.

The three greats: Simon Flexner, William Welch and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Dedicated on October 17, 1910, the 50-bed Rockefeller Institute Hospital admitted only patients with polio, pneumonia, syphilis, heart disease and celiac disease-conditions then under study. As his hospital director, Flexner recruited Rufus Cole, a School of Medicine graduate who had done his residency under Osler and then worked under Lewellys Barker, Osler's successor as chief of medicine. Barker is credited with having created a new breed of investigator at Hopkins-the clinical scientist-and Cole brought that concept to Rockefeller. By setting up research labs right alongside the wards, Cole made it possible for his physicians both to care for patients and study them.

Cole was a fan of what was known as the "full-time plan," meaning that the doctors who staffed the hospital didn't practice privately. Like the researchers who headed the labs, they were all full professors at the institute. (That same plan was under hot debate at Hopkins but wasn't adopted here until 1913.)

As superintendent of nursing at the hospital, Cole installed Nancy Ellicott. A 1903 graduate of Johns Hopkins' nursing school, she was known for having invented a special back rest for bed patients and a laundry cart on wheels. A member of a prominent Maryland family, Ellicott was also a golf champion and accomplished horsewoman. For 28 years, she presided over the nursing and housekeeping staffs at the Rockefeller hospital.

But only one woman in the first 50 years of the Rockefeller Institute became a full professor, or "Member," Florence Sabin. Flexner had known Sabin as a brilliant Hopkins student and intern and then when she worked in the anatomy lab of his great friend, Franklin Mall. At Hopkins, Sabin had attained the rank of professor but had been passed over for chairman of anatomy. Flexner invited her to join the Institute, and in 1925, at the age of 54, she became a professor of pathology and bacteriology there.

After Flexner retired as director in 1935, he was succeeded by two more Hopkins men: Herbert Gasser-a 1915 graduate of the School of Medicine and then Detlev Bronk, president of The Johns Hopkins University.
By then, it was 1953, and change was in the wind. Bronk broadened the Rockefeller Institute into a university, and in 1954, it began awarding the Ph.D. In 1965 its name was changed to The Rockefeller University.

 

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