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John Davison Rockefeller

industrialist, philanthropist
Born: 7/8/1839
Birthplace: Richford, N.Y.

An American business icon, Rockefeller made his first business transaction at age 12. His parents had taught him to save his money, and when he had earned $50 from odd jobs, his mother suggested he loan the money to a neighboring farmer and charge 7% interest. Later he remarked of the experience, “The impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing to let the money be my servant and not make myself a slave to the money.” Rockefeller got his real start in business at age 20, when he began selling produce in Cleveland, co-founding his own firm in 1859, Clark & Rockefeller. By 1863 he had moved on to oil, buying one of the first refineries in Cleveland and running it with such efficiency that he was soon able to buy up competitors. Rockefeller and his associates formed Standard Oil of Ohio in 1870, a firm whose name would eventually symbolize the large trusts that led to the enactment of the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890). Standard Oil continued to grow through acquiring competitors, then cut its costs below those of remaining competitors by eliciting volume discounts from suppliers on everything from pipelines to railroads. A federal antitrust lawsuit (1890–92) led to the breakup of the Standard Oil Trust, but the Standard Oil holding company of New Jersey skirted the law until 1911. Rockefeller developed a reputation as a ruthless businessman and financier, even as his philanthropic pursuits funded humanitarian causes, such as the founding of University of Chicago (1892), to which Rockefeller had donated some $80 million by the time of his death. With his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., he established major philanthropic institutions, including the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (1901, renamed Rockefeller University in 1965); the General Education Board (1902) specializing in gifts to various educational and research agencies; the Rockefeller Foundation (1913), promoting public health and advancing the medical, natural, and social sciences; and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (1918) founded in memory of his wife and furthering child welfare and the social sciences. Rockefeller is the author of Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (1906).

Died: 5/23/1937

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