Warren Buffett’s Philanthropic Hero

Abraham Flexner probably influenced hilanthropy as much as any individual in the country

Published: Nov 27, 2012 06:23:25 AM IST
Updated: Nov 26, 2012 05:04:06 PM IST
Warren Buffett’s Philanthropic Hero
Image: Corbis
Abraham Flexner, 1929

Warren Buffett has made some $50 billion doing things his own way, so it was completely consistent that at The Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy, held at the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, rather than take a book out of the building, he brought one in. Specifically, a well-worn hardcover copy of I Remember, the 1940 autobiography of a man named Abraham Flexner, whom few modern philanthropists have even heard of.

“Abraham Flexner probably influenced philanthropy as much as any individual in the country,” says Buffett, flipping through the autobiography he first read more than a half-century ago. “Not in terms of the money he used but of what he brought to the game.”

The Louisville native first attracted public attention in 1908 for his book The American College, which condemned higher education for its reliance on lectures versus small classes and hands-on teaching. His prescient analysis attracted the attention of Andrew Carnegie,who was keen to reform medical schools.

In 1910 the Carnegie Foundation published ‘The Flexner Report’, which for the first time set national standards for physician training. “He was not a doctor,” says Buffett. “He just was smart and straight thinking. And after he worked for a couple of years for Carnegie to do this, half of the medical schools closed. I mean, he actually changed medical education.”

Flexner struck yet again in 1930, backed by Louis Bamberger, with Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he recruited the likes of Albert Einstein and J Robert Oppenheimer.

“I’ve studied what both the people with the money do and the people who were implementing the ideas of the people with the money,” Buffett adds. “And it had an influence on me very early.”

That long-term influence helps demystify Buffett’s philanthropic philosophy. Want to know why history’s greatest asset allocator has essentially chosen to outsource his philanthropic initiatives to Bill and Melinda Gates? Look to Flexner.

“Carnegie did not go out and visit all these medical schools himself,” says Buffett. “He got Flexner to do it. George Eastman wanted to start a great medical school in Rochester, and he didn’t know how to do it. He called up Flexner and said, ‘Tell me how to do it’. And it was the same way with the Bambergers. So I believe in getting things done through other people.”

Similarly, Flexner helps explains Buffett’s insistence that, rather than a perpetual foundation, his massive bequest go to work within 10 years of his death.

Buffett remembers the editorial that the New York Times wrote about Flexner in 1959 when he died, which ended, “No other American of his time has contributed more to the welfare of this country and of humanity in general.”

By teeing up what promises to be the greatest cash surge in the history of philanthropy, Buffett has set himself up for a similar epitaph.

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(This story appears in the 07 December, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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