The Spencers’ Philanthropy: Scientific and Medical Organizations

The Spencers, privately and through the Foundation, gave to a wide variety of scientific and medical organizations and projects based in the Kansas City and Pittsburg regions. Major contributions went to Linda Hall Library, Midwest Research Institute, St. Luke’s Hospital, Planned Parenthood, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Spencers also contributed smaller amounts to a variety of other similar organizations.


RH MS 542_b19_f10_letter 6.27.1980.jpg

Planned Letter, Daniel L. Williamson, Executive Director of Parenthood of Western Missouri & Kansas, to Helen Spencer, June 27, 1980

The Foundation – and Helen privately – regularly gave small amounts to medical organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  The Foundation also provided Planned Parenthood with a major grant in 1972 for expanded programming. During the Foundation’s board of directors meeting on June 16, 1972, Helen noted that Planned Parenthood of Greater Kansas City “has provided and is providing leadership for the acceptance of family planning as an essential element of responsible parenthood, stable family life, and social harmony.”


RH MS 542_b6_f7_Science magazine.jpg

Science: American Association for the Advancement of Science, reprinted by the Midwest Research Institute, undated [1965?]

The Spencers believed that the Midwest could be competitive with the technical, scientific, and research resources of the two coasts only if the region supported institutions like the Midwest Research Institute and Linda Hall Library.

Kenneth co-founded the Midwest Research Institute (now MRIGlobal) in 1944 and identified the organization’s first project: researching the conversion of World War II ammonium nitrate ordnance plants to peaceful post-war production of fertilizer. This effort mirrored Kenneth’s creation of Spencer Chemical Company. Kenneth chaired MRI in the 1950s, and he and the Foundation provided funds for a laboratory building and auditorium in 1958. Helen continued providing funds to MRI throughout the rest of the Foundation’s existence.

The Linda Hall Library is a private science research library in Kansas City. It was founded in 1945 with funds from grain merchant Herbert F. Hall and named after his wife. The Spencer Foundation provided the library with general operating funds before and after Kenneth’s death. Helen also directed the Foundation’s funds toward the rare book room, collections, and the green malachite tazza, which is a showpiece in the library’s foyer.


RH MS 542_b15_f5_spencer award program_p3.jpg

Booklet, Charles F. Spencer Award, given by the Kansas City Section of the American Chemical Society, undated [1966]

Kenneth and several Spencer family members worked with the American Chemical Society to establish this award in 1955. It honored Kenneth’s father Charles, who passed away in 1942. Spencer Chemical originally gave the money for this award; Gulf Oil continued this tradition after it bought the company. In December 1966, the Foundation’s board of directors voted to begin funding the award and decided to change the name to honor Kenneth. The Kansas City Section continues to give this award with endowed funds from the Spencer Foundation.


RH MS 542_b4_f14_letter 5.10.1960_p1.jpg

Letter, Dr. Nicholas A. Tierney to Helen Spencer, May 10, 1960

The Foundation very rarely provided grants to organizations outside the Midwest. However, Helen privately gave to groups and institutions in New York, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere. These gifts included a donation to St. Francis Hospital in Florida, where Kenneth died less than four months before Helen wrote this letter. Dr. Tierney was Kenneth’s attending physician at his death.



Photograph, Helen Spencer and two administrators with a plaque for a new chemistry building, University of Missouri-Kansas City, undated [1972?]

The Foundation’s $850,000 gift to support construction of a new chemistry building was announced in February 1966, just weeks after its donation for a new research library at KU was publicized. With projects of this significance, C. Y. (“Kit”) Thomas was particularly insistent about ensuring the Foundation had naming rights. Thomas was a Spencer Foundation board member, longtime Spencer Chemical administrator, and Kansas state senator.

Helen received the Chancellor’s Medal from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1972. In accepting the award, she remarked that “through the years I have believed that what one does for one’s self is short-lived, but what one does for others will live on.”

Photograph courtesy of University Archives, University of Missouri-Kansas City.