This dissertation examines efforts by the largest American philanthropic foundations, particularly those established by Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, to improve mankind by funding research in the fields of human behavior and biology. In this study I argue that during the period between the world wars foundation policies and practices revolved around three main themes: the formation of an "interlocking directorate" of foundation officers, scientific entrepreneurs, and university administrators; the promotion of the ideal of transcending disciplinary boundaries through "cooperation in research;" and the launching of a human engineering effort that was based on the premise that human problems could be investigated and attacked through scientific research. Throughout the interwar period, university research programs that were coordinated by well-connected scientific entrepreneurs, that pledged to cultivate interdisciplinary cooperation, and that fulfilled the goals of the human engineering effort received millions of foundation dollars. The case studies that form the centerpiece of this dissertation both exemplify the most successful grant applications of the interwar period and illustrate how the human engineering effort unfolded over time.
The early phases of the human engineering effort were based on the idea that humans could be improved through the investigation and control of behavior and sexual reproduction. Exemplary case studies for the earlier phases of human engineering include a multi-million dollar grant package for Yale University behavioral sciences, initiatives related to the eugenics movement, and support for the National Research Council Committee for Research in Problems of Sex. Gradually, foundation-sponsored human engineering was transformed into an effort to investigate and control living beings on a structural, chemical, and molecular level. Case studies that epitomize this later phase include grants for biological science research at Stanford University and University of Chicago, and especially the cooperative bio-organic chemistry and molecular biology projects that foundations helped to launch at the California Institute of Technology. My analysis of these case studies, viewed through the lens of the interlocking directorate, the cooperation in research ideal and the human engineering effort, elucidates intersecting social, intellectual, political and economic factors that shaped knowledge production in the United States.