Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial

The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial was founded October 18, 1918 by John D. Rockefeller Sr., in memory of his deceased wife, and was terminated as a legal entity on January 3, 1929. The Memorial's mandate was the promotion of the welfare of women and children worldwide. In the 1920s the foundation was one of the major American supporters of applied social science research. By 1922, the Memorial's trustees gave away some $13 millions, of which $50,500 went to scientific research, the rest largely to traditional Rockefeller charities in the New York area. In January 1922, the Memorial had some $74 million at its disposal, and the Trustees decided that the Memorial needed an overall plan for its dispersal. They were committed to social betterment through science, and believed they needed foundation professionals to help them. That May they lured Beardsley Ruml from the Carnegie Corporation as the Memorial's director. Ruml and the Trustees worked out three major programs for the Memorial, including general social science, interracial relations, and child study and parent education. They appointed Lawrence K. Frank program officer for child study and parent education.

The program's underlying assumptions were simple. Parents and teachers were directly responsible for the care of children. Such care often suffered from ignorance of CHILDCARE and nature; hence research would advance child welfare and educate parents and teachers in the best means of child nurture. Besides research, essential activities included disseminating such information to parents and teachers, training professional researchers, teachers, and administrators, and conducting experiments to determine the best methods of parent education.

Between 1922 and 1928, Frank created the entire professional scientific subculture of child development and parent education. He crisscrossed the country by train to interview prospective personnel for centers in research and parent education. He and the Trustees did not enroll volunteers. Instead they anointed particular groups and cadres after often long evaluations. They gave money to an existing research center, the Iowa Child Welfare Research Center, at the University of Iowa, and established other research centers– usually called institutes of child welfare–at Teachers College, Columbia University, Yale University, the University of Toronto, the University of Minnesota, and the University of California at Berkeley. Each center had a core of researchers dedicated to certain scientific problems; each center was to develop a statewide program in parent education, including research, teaching, and popularization. There were other centers of parent education research and teaching at various land grant or liberal arts institutions, including the University of Georgia, the University of Cincinnati, and Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. These public institutions complied more with the Memorial's plans than the private ones; Teachers College closed its institute when the Memorial's funds ran out in 1936, and Yale insisted on creating an Institute of Human Relations from its Institute of Psychology, neither of which functioned as a genuine inter-disciplinary home for Yale professor ARNOLD GESELL, who preferred to work by himself. The institutes at Minnesota and Berkeley continued to operate into the twenty-first century; the Iowa Station lost its intellectual primacy in the 1950s and was closed in the 1970s.

Frank also helped create a Committee on Child Development of the National Research Council, which in the 1930s became the professional society of child development researchers. In addition, he helped fund journals for the nascent field, a program of National Research Council fellow-ships for 160 graduate fellows to take advanced study, and even a scheme with PARENTS MAGAZINE to generate dividends to the research centers for new investigations; although the magazine never paid a dividend on the Memorial's substantial investments. A small professional scientific subculture was thus inserted into American higher education, thanks to the Memorial's largess, and often over the protests of faculty in traditional psychology and other social science departments.

When the Memorial was closed in 1929, the bulk of its resources were allocated to the social sciences division of the Rockefeller Foundation. Other foundations intervened to support child development and parent education in the Great Depression and later, but clearly without the Memorial, the field's history would have been much less assured.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Saving; Child Study; Parenting; Social Welfare.


Cravens, Hamilton. 1985. "Child-Saving in the Age of Professionalism, 1915–1930." In American Childhood: A Research Guide and a Historical Handbook. ed. J. M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press.

Cravens, Hamilton. 1993. Before Head Start: The Iowa Station and America's Children. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. 1993. The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, Final Report. New York: Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial.