• U.S.

Education: Autocrat of the Moneybags

4 minute read

A wonderful attraction for money had Abraham Flexner. For 30 years the fattest moneybags in the U. S. opened to his touch. He loosened up no mean part of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, Eastman and Morgan fortunes, channeled them into U. S. education. Last week, in his autobiography, I Remember (Simon & Schuster; $3.75), billiard-bald, wizened Dr. Flexner, 73, explained how he did it.

Louisville-born Abraham Flexner got a job with the Carnegie Foundation in 1908. His first assignment was to investigate the 155 U. S. and Canadian medical schools. His now famed report enabled him to get $1,500,000 of Rockefeller money to build up a great U. S. medical school at Johns Hopkins, his alma mater, and eventually revolutionized U. S. medical education. It also called him to the attention of John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Shocked at vice conditions in New York City, which he had investigated as a grand-jury chairman, Mr. Rockefeller prevailed upon Dr. Flexner to make a study of prostitution in Europe, a job for which, Dr. Flexner protested, he was “absolutely without qualifications.” Nevertheless, Dr. Flexner pitched in, conscientiously toured brothels and red-light districts in eight European countries. To his wife, Playwright Anne Crawford (Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch), Dr. Flexner faithfully sent reports of his investigations. Excerpt (from an interview with a prostitute): “When I left, I gave her a few gold pieces. . . . She inquired very kindly: ‘Is this all?’ meaning obviously did I ask nothing more. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Why,’ she said, ‘then you are not a man; you are an angel.’ ‘No,’ I objected, ‘I am a man all right.’ ”

Upshot of this assignment: New York City was “swept clean” of streetwalkers and Dr. Flexner got a key to the Rockefeller millions. In his 15 years on the Rockefeller General Education Board, Dr. Flexner helped create top-notch medical schools all over the U. S., launched progressive Lincoln School, steered the Rockefeller wealth into many another exemplary enterprise. When he retired from G. E. B. in 1928, philanthropists refused to give him peace, implored him to spend their money. At the urging of Newark Merchant Louis Bamberger, Dr. Flexner took $5,000,000 to start the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J., got Albert Einstein to leave Germany to do research at his institute. Last October, having spent all the loose cash in sight, Dr. Flexner finally retired for good.

Dr. Flexner livens his autobiography with many an anecdote illustrating his money-raising methods. Samples:

≫One day in 1919 he proposed to Frederick T. Gates, a good friend of Rockefeller Sr., that John D. give $50,000,000 for medical education. Gates: “Write a memorandum . . . to Mr. Rockefeller.” Flexner: “How much will he read?” Gates: “Oh, five pages.” Flexner: “Very well, I shall try to get it into four.” Few months later Rockefeller’s counsel handed Flexner a note pledging $20,000,000, asked what Flexner intended to do with it. Replied Flexner: “Not much until we get the other $30,000,000.” He got the $50,000,000.

≫ Visiting Archeologist Harold H. Nelson in the Egyptian desert, Flexner asked whether Nelson’s daughter Irene had a donkey. Nelson replied that he could not afford it, explained that if he bought a donkey (price: $50) and stayed in Egypt long enough to enjoy it, he would also need a stable, stable boy, books, a fire-and ant-proof library, a photographer, many another item of archeological equipment. Total cost of donkey: $400,000. Flexner told the story to Julius Rosenwald and the G. E. B., raised the $400,000, cabled Nelson: “Buy Irene a donkey.”

≫ One day J. P. Morgan summoned Flexner, offered to give the Lying-in Hospital in Manhattan to the G. E. B.-aided Cornell Medical School. Flexner: “Do you run a deficit?” Morgan: “. . . about $50,000.” Flexner replied that he would advise Cornell to decline. “Decline four or five million dollars?” exclaimed Morgan. Flexner: “Mr. Morgan, have you ever read Potash and Perlmutter?” Morgan: “No.” Flexner: “. . . They were making a schedule of their assets and liabilities. . . . Potash cried out: ‘Von 1902 Cadillac.’ ‘Vat,’ replied Perlmutter. . . . ‘Von 1902 Cadillac ain’t no asset. It is a liability.’ ” Thereupon Flexner proposed to accept the hospital if Morgan added $2,000,000 to its endowment, observed: “You will never get out of this hole any cheaper.” Two days later, Morgan gave in.

≫ Flexner visited George Eastman at home in Rochester, for two hours earnestly outlined a scheme to build a $10,000,000 medical school at University of Rochester. Impressed, Eastman said he could spare $2,500,000. Flexner: “There’s no hurry. Wait till you sell more Kodaks.” Few days later Eastman summoned Flexner from Manhattan, offered $3,500,000. Flexner shook his head, returned to Manhattan. Few weeks later, Eastman called him again, announced: “I shall make one more offer and then I never want to see your face again.” The offer: $5,000,000, if G. E. B. put up the rest. This time Flexner accepted. Cried Eastman: “You are the best salesman I have ever seen.”

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