Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller

Recently I listened to an audio recording of Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow. Rockefeller reminds me of Bill Gates: corporate corruption, fantastic fortune, and phenomenal philanthropy. Chernow says that Rockefeller’s “good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure.”

Rockefeller intersects with Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology through the Rockefeller Foundation and The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, now known as the Rockefeller University. Russ Hobbie and I mention the name “Rockefeller” once in IPMB, a Chapter 6 reference to a report written by neuroscientist Rafael Lorente de Nó, who worked at Rockefeller University for decades.

Davis L Jr, Lorente de Nó R (1947) Contribution to the mathematical theory of the electrotonus. Stud Rockefeller Inst Med Res Repr 131(Part 1):442–496.

In Chapter 3 we cite by Warren Weaver, the director of the Division of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. Their website states that in 1932

Warren Weaver comes to the Foundation and during his 27-year association becomes the principal architect of programs in the natural sciences. He sees his task as being “to encourage the application of the whole range of scientific tools and techniques, and specially those which had been so superbly developed in the physical sciences, to the problems of living matter.”

He sounds like an IPMB kind of guy.

In Chapter 9, Russ and I discuss Roderick MacKinnon, who first determined the structure of the potassium channel. MacKinnon leads a laboratory at Rockefeller University, located in Manhattan along the East River about a mile north of the United Nations headquarters. Nowadays students earn graduate degrees from Rockefeller University. Bertil Hille, author of Ion Channels of Excitable Membranes, is an alum.

Rockefeller University hosts the Center for Studies in Physics and Biology, whose website states

The Center for Studies in Physics and Biology was conceived by physicists and biologists to increase communication between their disciplines, with the goal of developing innovative solutions to biological questions. Much of the work at the center aims to understand how physical laws govern the operation of biochemical machinery and the processing of information inside cells. To this end, researchers study both the basic physical properties of biological systems (such as elasticity of DNA and DNA-protein interactions) and the application of physical techniques to the modeling of neural, genetic, and metabolic networks.

Although the research is more microscopic that you would typically find inour book, the Center epitomizes the goal of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology: apply physics and mathematics to research in medicine and biology. I sometimes see the Center advertising for fellows, and suspect it would be an interesting place to work.

John D. Rockefeller was one of the greatest philanthropists of all time. Besides Rockefeller University and the Rockefeller Foundation, he helped found both the University of Chicago and Spelman College. His family has carried on his philanthropic tradition. Three years ago, Rockefeller’s grandson David Rockefeller passed away. The university website said

The entire Rockefeller University community deeply mourns the loss of David Rockefeller, our beloved friend and benefactor, Honorary Chairman, and Life Trustee. During its long and storied history, no single individual had a more profound influence on the University than David. His inspired leadership, extraordinary vision, and immense generosity have been essential factors in the University’s success. His integrity, strength, wisdom, and judgment-and especially his unequivocal commitment to excellence-shaped the University and made it the powerhouse of biomedical discovery it is today.

One of the greatest philanthropists of our time, as well as one of the world’s foremost leaders in the spheres of finance, international relations, and public service, David Rockefeller dedicated his life to improving the world and the lives of all who share our planet. David was born in New York City in 1915, the youngest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s six children and a grandson of John D. Rockefeller.

One of my favorite parts of Titan is the story about Rockefeller’s dad, William Rockefeller, a bigamist, con artist, and snake oil salesman. Chernow isn’t fond of Ida Tarbell, the muckraking journalist who wrote influential articles in McClure’s Magazine condemning Standard Oil, the company founded by Rockefeller. Tarbell’s articles led the trust buster Teddy Roosevelt to brake up the monopoly.

Ron Chernow is an excellent writer who’s written fine books about Grant and Washington. He’s best known for his wonderful biography of Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Lin Manuel-Miranda ‘s musical masterpiece.

Originally published at http://hobbieroth.blogspot.com.



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Brad Roth

Brad Roth


Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.