John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Statesman and Founder of the Population Council

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the people who have most influenced thinking about population over the past century. The profiles bring you the insights of contemporary population specialists on the contributions of their predecessors.

(Population Today, August/September 2000) The motivation for John D. Rockefeller’s interest in population issues eluded many of his closest associates and advisors. It grew out of his humanity and his concern for the well-being of all people. Indeed, he took a broad view of “population control” as a means to address poverty and economic development rather than as an end in itself.

His first public undertaking came in 1952, when he initiated the convocation of the Conference on Population Problems, in Williamsburg, Va. The discussion took up food supply, industrial development, depletion of natural resources, and political instability resulting from unchecked population growth. The presence of medical doctors, chemists, geologists, economists, and other scientists gave serious weight and prominent attention to the emerging and unrecognized facts of demographic change.

Soon after this conference, Rockefeller established the Population Council. From philanthropic funds at his disposal, he provided $1 million within the first year of operations.

In 1967, Rockefeller initiated, lobbied heavily for, and finally achieved a World Leaders’ Statement signed by 30 heads of state including U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. The values and beliefs enumerated included the ideas that “the population problem must be recognized by government as a principal element in long-range planning” and that “the objective of family planning is the enrichment of human life [in that it] frees man to attain his individual dignity and reach his full potential.” No mention of women, but the relevance of the status of women had not yet permeated the policy consciousness. This document drew attention to population growth as a world problem and engendered political support for family planning as the solution.

Three years later, President Nixon established a Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, with Rockefeller as chairman. Several issues that the commission hotly debated mirrored what would become the Cairo agenda. Some members felt, for instance, that consideration of the social and economic circumstances of women went beyond the commission’s purview: examining from a demographic perspective the need for safer, more secure fertility control. The most controversial issue was abortion. Members of the commission disagreed, but the majority called for “creating a clear and positive framework for the practice of abortion on request.” A furor ensued, with the president rejecting the recommendations of his own commission, and Rockefeller became embroiled in a public debate about the legalization of abortion.

Undaunted, Rockefeller again addressed the broad social and economic issues of development, poverty, and the lives of women in his controversial 1974 “Bucharest speech.” Speaking at the World Population Conference, he called for “new and urgent attention to the role of women as a vital characteristic of modern development.” Many people who had worked on developing contraceptive methods and family planning as the primary means to reduce population growth saw the text as a professional and personal rejection. Although Rockefeller regretted the personal nature of the debate, its intensity did not surprise him. As his advisor, I had told him frankly how his words would be received. Time, change, and the flood of history have muted the resistance to those ideas and values, many of which are reflected in the Cairo consensus.

The thread that runs through Rockefeller’s population work is one of moral courage. He taught me to be tenacious, to hold focus on what I knew and believed. At the beginning of this new century, we miss his leadership, but his legacy is alive and well.

Joan Dunlop, former advisor to John D. Rockefeller 3rd, directs A Women’s Lens on Global Issues, a project of The Aspen Institute, for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York.

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