David H. Koch, a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist whose libertarian views and support for free-market capitalism had a profound impact on American politics, has died at the age of 79.
Koch, who had long suffered from prostate cancer, retired in June 2018 as executive vice president of Koch Industries, the Wichita-based multibillion-dollar industrial conglomerate started by his father, and stepped down from active participation in the political and philanthropic networks he had established and built assiduously over the years with his older brother Charles. While both brothers were included in the Forbes 400 list in 2018, each with an estimated net worth of $53.5 billion and a philanthropy score of 4 (out of a possible 5), David's lifetime giving totaled $1.3 billion, slightly more than his brother's total of $1.07 billion. Many of David Koch's largest gifts, including one of $100 million to establish the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, another of $150 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and gifts of $100 million to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and $60 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were made in support of medical research centers or arts and cultural institutions.
But Koch — who ran as the Libertarian Party's vice presidential candidate in 1980 on a platform that called for the abolition of all corporate and personal income taxes, Medicare, and child labor laws — and his brother were perhaps best known for the influence they wielded in American politics through a network of conservative advocacy and donor groups, including Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners. According to the Washington Post, the Koch network spent nearly $900 million in the 2016 election cycle, nearly as much as the national Republican Party. And while the brothers made it clear they did not support the candidacy of Donald Trump, their money and donor networks have been credited with helping elect numerous Tea Party candidates to U.S. House and Senate seats and for helping to solidify Republican majorities in thirty-one state legislatures.
Indeed, Koch's political views — which included support for same-sex marriage and legalized abortion — made him a polarizing figure, while institutions of higher education that received gifts from the Koch brothers often paid a price in the form of greater scrutiny. Given the brothers' staunch opposition to government regulation, especially in the areas of the environment and climate change, recipients of Koch philanthropy such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History often found themselves embroiled in controversy for accepting what many saw as "tainted" support.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Koch attended prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also was captain of the basketball team. After working as an engineer in Cambridge and New York City, he joined the family business in 1970 as a technical services manager at Koch Engineering, became its president in 1979 and executive vice president of the parent company, Koch Industries, in 1981, and opened an office in New York City. He and Charles transformed the company into a global conglomerate and the second-largest privately held company in the United States, with interests ranging from petroleum and ranching to a variety of consumer products.
Koch survived a plane collision in 1991 and the following year learned he had prostate cancer, for which he was treated but was never completely cured. In a 2014 interview with Barbara Walters, Koch summed up what he hoped might appear on his epitaph: "I'd like it to say that David Koch did his best to make the world a better place and that he hopes his wealth will help people long after he has passed away."