A brief history
In 1937, internationally active Swedish businessman Axel Wenner-Gren (1881-1961) made two large donations for the benefit of Swedish research: an institute for experimental biology in his name at the then Stockholm University (Stockholms högskola), and the Wenner-Gren Society (Wenner-Grenska Samfundet) for the promotion of scientific research and Nordic cooperation. What drew greater attention than these activities, however, was an announcement in the media on 1 November 1955 that "Dr Wenner-Gren" had manifested his generosity once again through the establishment of the Wenner-Gren Center. The Center was to provide the material conditions for creating an international research center in Stockholm, which he had envisaged as a tall building at Sveaplan that would include housing for guest researchers. After years of deliberation on the location and financial issues, the 24-floor Pylon and half-moon shaped Helicon complete with researcher accommodation were ceremoniously inaugurated in early 1962.
Simultaneously, the Board of the Wenner-Gren Society made the unfortunate decision to financially support the now-deceased donor's estate, which in time led to several board members being prosecuted for breach of trust. Most were acquitted of criminal charges but they were compelled to pay considerable damages to the Society. As former Chairman of the Wenner-Gren Foundations, Jan Wallander, chronicles in his book, The Wenner-Gren Foundations 1955-2000 (Atlantis 2002), the Wenner-Gren Center Foundation had certainly played no part in the Society's complicated affairs, but it was nevertheless tainted by the negative publicity (p. 25). Naturally, it was also not easy for an outsider to separate the two.
Activities at the Wenner-Gren Center, however, were up and running quickly, including the rental of researcher accommodation and office spaces for research councils; in addition to various symposia and conferences. Over the years, the facility has undoubtedly played a vital role in the international exchange of research activities, not least through the nearly 200 symposia that have been held here. From a financial perspective, the outcome was however modest, and not at all in line with what the donor had envisaged. When Jan Wallander, then Chairman of the Board of Handelsbanken, took over the position of Chairman of the Wenner-Gren Center in 1982, he soon realized that the Foundation´s position was of concern for several reasons. The subtitle of his book is telling: "How vanity, visions and overambitious plans to improve the world led to the creation of great Foundations". Details of the conflict-filled development, which led to the creation of a new foundation, The Axel Wenner-Gren Foundation for International Exchange of Scientists, and the sale of the Pylon and the Tetragon commercial building to its west, may be found in Wallander's book. It may be appropriate here to note that when the sale was completed in 1990, both foundations received capital gains of SEK 665 million. Successful administration has now more than doubled the foundations collective fortune.
This has made it possible not only to retain and renovate the researcher accommodation facilities in Helicon, but also to develop a research support operation, which has an annual turnover of SEK 50 million. The operation primarily finances stipends that enable visits abroad for newly graduated PhDs, and long- and short-term visits for foreign guest researchers at Swedish institutions.
Fall 2005 saw the launch of a partnership with the Wenner-Gren Society, aimed at coordinating applications and other administrative activities as much as possible. Thereby, the Boards of both Foundations and the Society hope to keep the donor's visions of world betterment abreast of an ever-changing reality.
(Inge Jonsson, 2010)