- Innovative Partners: The Rockefeller Foundation and Thailand by William H. Becker
To mark the centenary of its establishment in 1913, the Rockefeller Foundation has published six volumes on its history. Four of them cover, respectively, the foundation’s work in the United States, in Africa, in public health and in agriculture. A fifth treats its role as a philanthropic innovator. And the sixth — written by the eminent historian of American business, of economic policy and of the international economy William Becker — focuses on the foundation’s work in Thailand, dating to 1915. Each of these volumes is available on the foundation’s website, with the volume under review at <http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/uploads/files/29945fef-7950-430d-9892-5767e4066336-innovative.pdf>.
That the Rockefeller Foundation should single out its work in Thailand and with its Thai “partners” through the publication of such a book is in itself worth remarking on. That it chose to do so at a time when rival conceptions of Thailand are the cause of great disharmony makes the decision still more noteworthy, and also rather brave. At the centre of this disharmony is the question of the most appropriate relationship in twenty-first-century Thailand among society, state and the monarchy, whose ties to the foundation this book does so much to celebrate. But the foundation’s century of experience with the country and its institutional memory and rich archival record mean that the volume allows for unique insight into [End Page 290] its understanding of the relationship between its activities and major developments in Thailand’s recent history.
While the book has a list of the photographs, many of considerable historical interest, that grace its pages, the foundation has chosen to publish it without citations to sources. Nevertheless, the media affairs office of the foundation kindly provided to this reviewer a manuscript version of the book, with citations to sources for the introduction, conclusion and five substantive chapters that comprise Innovative Partners.
The first two of these chapters, which — like much of the book — draw above all on the remarkable collections of the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) in Sleepy Hollow, New York, focus on the Rockefeller Foundation’s work in public health and medical education in the period between the First World War and the mid-1930s. They are among the strongest chapters in the book.
The first chapter narrates the success of Dr Victor Heiser of the foundation’s International Health Commission in winning the support of King Vajiravudh for an effort to replicate in Siam Rockefeller-supported efforts to combat hookworm in the American South. Heiser was not entirely unfamiliar to high-ranking officials in Bangkok when he arrived in the city in April 1915. His previous work in the Philippine Islands had brought him into contact with Phraya Maha-ammattayathibodi (Seng Wiriyasiri), who was acting as Siam’s interior minister in Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s stead at the time of the American’s visit to Bangkok on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation. Eleven years before that visit, King Chulalongkorn and Prince Damrong had dispatched two officials to Manila to learn how to produce serum for treating rinderpest and bubonic plague, to receive intensive training in microbial medicine, and to gather materials likely to be of value to the improvement of laboratory work and medical education in Siam (Davisakd 2007, p. 322).
It is not clear whether Heiser and Phraya Maha-ammat had become acquainted in connection with this 1904 Siamese mission or in the course of later contact between Bangkok and colonial health officials in Manila. Whatever the case, the record of such contact makes two [End Page 291] points clear. First, the Philippines numbered among the Southeast Asian colonies of Western powers from which the modernizing Siamese state of the post-1890 period sought to learn. Second, its specific objectives in learning from the Philippine model lay not least in the areas of sanitation and medicine. Victor Heiser may have had a new employer by the time of his 1915 trip to Bangkok. And the...