The Culver Gifts

Robert Throop and Lloyd Gordon Ward

In December of 1895, Helen Culver, a Chicago land developer,1 donated several pieces of real estate (some of it income generating) to the University of Chicago (cf. Chicago News 1895; Chicago Tribune 1895a-c; New York Times 1895). Newspaper reports at the time valued the package at more than $1,000,000, almost all of it tied to research in the biological sciences (see letter quoted in Goodspeed 1925: 95). The largest portion of the gift was dedicated to the construction of the facilities for the biology departments, the Hull Biological Laboratories, named for Charles Hull, the cousin from whom Miss Culver had inherited her wealth (cf. Chicago Tribune 1889, New York Times 1889a,b). During construction, Culver made additional cash contributions to ensure that the Laboratories were properly outfitted (Goodspeed 1925:96). In his subsequent fundraising efforts the years that followed, the university's president, William R. Harper, relied on Culver's remarkable generosity as an example to others potential patrons  (Chicago Tribune 1900a).

The actual value of the Culver gift is difficult to compute. Chicago land values were in flux; the value of the properties declined for a period (Chicago Tribune 1900b). To make up the difference Miss Culver added another $143,000 cash and securities in 1898. On the other hand, some of the properties were developed, generating income of their own. The gift also came during an important phase of the University's capital campaign. To encourage the University to actively pursue donors like Culver, John D. Rockefeller (the University's primary patron) had pledged to match gifts, dollar-for-dollar, during the school's initial capital campaign. That meant that the realized value of the Culver gift was more than twice its value on paper. The records of the University of Chicago document that they negotiated with Rockefeller to have both the value of the property and its income matched by the oil baron.2

Table 1: Estimated value in 2005 of $1,000,000 in 18956
Estimated Value $ With Matching Dollars
GDP deflator $ 21,722,543.35 $ 43,445,086.70
Consumer Price Index $ 23,992,628.99 $ 47,985,257.98
Unskilled Wage $ 116,444,444.44 $ 232,888,888.88
Nominal GDP per capita $ 187,807,139.26 $ 375,614,275.52
Relative Share of GDP $ 798,960,872.35 $ 1,597,921,744.70

 At the time of her first gift, Helen Culver also promised an additional $600,000 as a bequest.3 Because she lived for another thirty years, the University didn't realize that part of the Culver gift until 1925 (Chicago Tribune 1925, New York Times 1925).

Table 2: Estimated value in 2005 of $ 600,0006
In 1895
(when promised)
In 1925
(when received)
GDP deflator $ 13,033,526.01 $ 5,599,668.87
Consumer Price Index $ 14,395,577.40 $ 6,684,540.79
Value of Consumer bundle $ 14,487,721.12
Unskilled Wage $ 69,866,666.67 $ 23,346,534.65
Nominal GDP per capita $ 112,684,283.56 $ 32,289,251.55
Relative Share of GDP $ 479,376,523.41 $ 82,516,064.92

Typical accountings for Miss Culver's generosity do not include her support of W. I. Thomas's research work — the Helen Culver Fund for Race Psychology. In verbal accounts of that work, Thomas valued her support at $50,000, the sum most commonly reported in commentaries on Thomas or the project.4 Based on Culver's papers, Rudolf Haerle placed the grant at $35,000 (Haerle 1991), a value is consistent with the $40,000 estimate made by the University of Chicago's business manager in 1918, when the additional $5,000 dollar she paid the University of Chicago Press for the publication of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America is included in the total.5

Table 3: Estimated value in 2005 of Culver's Support of Thomas' Research6
  In 1910
$35, 000.00
In 1917
$ 5,000.00
GDP deflator $ 558,118.81 $ 52,830.37 $ 610,949.18
Consumer Price Index $ 724,182.41 $ 76,170.05 $ 797,352.46
Value of Consumer bundle $ 1,539,635.07 $ 154,903.20 $ 1,694,538.27
Unskilled Wage $ 3,198,837.21 $ 281,720.43 $ 3,480,557.64
Nominal GDP per capita $ 4,072,304.64 $ 363,944.56 $ 4,436,249.20
Relative Share of GDP $ 13,044,673.85 $ 1,043,199.33 $ 14,087,873.18

When you combine her gifts, Helen Culver's support for the University of Chicago was remarkable.

Table 4: Estimated value in 2005 of Culver's Gifts6
  2 X Initial Gift
 $ 2,000,000
Support for
Bequest Total
GDP deflator $ 43,445,086.70 $ 610,949.18 $ 5,599,668.87 $ 49,655,704.75
Consumer Price Index $ 47,985,257.98 $ 797,352.46 $ 6,684,540.79 $ 55,467,151.23
Value of Consumer bundle $ 1,694,538.27 $ 14,487,721.12
Unskilled Wage $ 232,888,888.88 $ 3,480,557.64 $ 23,346,534.65 $ 259,715,981.17
Nominal GDP per capita $ 375,614,275.52 $ 4,436,249.20 $ 32,289,251.55 $ 412,339,779.27
Relative Share of GDP $ 1,597,921,744.70 $ 14,087,873.18 $ 82,516,064.92 $ 1,694,525,682.80

The low estimate of $50,000,000 would attract the attention of the most jaded twenty-first century University trustee. The high estimate would be larger than the total endowment of all but a handful of North America's most established universities, and about one-third of the University of Chicago's total endowment in 2005.7

All three of Helen Culver gifts were intimately entwined with W. I. Thomas's career at the University of Chicago. We can be stated without exaggeration that without Thomas's efforts, the University would not have benefited from her extraordinary largesse (for more details see "The Education of W.I Thomas"). It is that aspect of Thomas's separation from the University of Chicago in 1918 that reflects so poorly on the University's Trustees. After twenty-five years of service and after having raised so much money for the University, the school provided Thomas with no pension.  

1. For more detailed biographical information about Helen Culver see Goodspeed (1925) and National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1927).

2. Memorandum of Agreement February 11, 1898, Presidential Papers 1890-1925, Box 29, Folder 30, University of Chicago Special Collections, Regenstein Library.

3. Letter from William Rainey Harper to Martin A Ryerson, 24 December 1895, Presidents Paper 1889-1925 box 65 folder 22, University of Chicago Special Collections, Regenstein Library.

4. Cf., Letter to Dorothy [January? 1935], Thomas Papers. Folder 1, University of Chicago Special Collection, Regenstein Library; W. I. Thomas (1939): 103; see also Bulmer 1984: 47.

5. Letter from University of Chicago Business Manager, Wallace Heckman to the Board of Trustees, 21 August 1918, included in the Minutes of the Meetings of the University of Chicago 10 September 1918 Vol. 10: 570.

6. Values computed using as computed using Relative Value calculator at Measuring

7. Based on Table 357: Endowment funds of the 120 colleges and universities with the largest amounts, by rank order: 2004 and 2005 , Digest of Education Statistics: 2006, National Center for Education Statistics (July 2007).


Bulmer, Martin.

Chicago Daily News.

Chicago Tribune

Goodspeed, Thomas W.

Haerle, Rudolf K., Jr.

National Cyclopedia of American Biography.

New York Times

Thomas, W. I.

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