Bill Gates following in footsteps of the rich of the past: ... funding public heath programs

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THE Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced that it would give $450 million toward eclectic inventions to aid the world's poor: more nutritious bananas, easier-to-use vaccines and chemicals that leave mosquitoes unable to smell their would-be victims, for example.

But the Gateses were not the first to see that money could sometimes move mountains in public health. They are following in the footsteps of the industrial giants of the late-19th century, said Dr. Howard Markel, director of the University of Michigan's Center for the History of Medicine.

These men also brought their fortunes to bear on social problems, and believed that they could succeed in philanthropy in much the way they had succeeded in business.

The donors of the robber-baron years started their philanthropy while still alive - a novel idea then. Andrew Carnegie, for example, gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to build libraries long before his death.

The largest bequest in American history prior to Carnegie's time was from Johns Hopkins, a Baltimore merchant, who left $7 million to found the eponymous university and hospital in 1873 - after he died.

But the closest parallel to the Gates approach to philanthropy is that of John D. Rockefeller, said Dr. Markel and Robert E. Kohler, a medical historian from the University of Pennsylvania.

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