Originally called Commonwealth Fund Fellowships, the Harkness Fellowships were initiated in 1925, just seven years after the founding of the Commonwealth Fund. The program was envisioned as a “reverse Rhodes Scholarship,” and its goals were advancing international understanding and encouraging maintenance of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. At first the program sponsored U.K. university graduates from any field, but later was expanded to include most of the English-speaking countries and, from 1952 to 1977, a number of Western European countries as well. The Harkness Fellows spent between one and three years at U.S. institutions, studying a topic of their choice, and, in many cases, completing an advanced degree in their field as part of the Fellowship. As the program evolved, fellows were drawn from an increasingly wide range of fields, including: medicine and the natural sciences, engineering, history, law, architecture, urban planning, education, and the arts. In 1988, the program was revised to focus on individuals working on social policy issues. From 1925 through 1997, there were more than 2,000 Harkness Fellows. Its alumni are an outstandingly distinguished group, including many civil servants and academics with highly influential careers, as well as well-known journalists such as Alistair Cooke and business leaders such as Christopher Hogg, former CEO of the textile manufacturer Courtaulds and former chairman of Reuters Group, and Hugh Fletcher, former CEO of Fletcher Challenge, once New Zealand’s largest company.

In 1997, the fellowships were redesigned in order to be more synergistic with the Fund’s mission and overall work, and the Harkness Fellowships in Health Care Policy and Practice were launched in 1998 as the centerpiece of the Commonwealth Fund’s new International Program in Health Policy and Practice Innovation, and led by Fund vice president Robin Osborn from 1997 to 2019. Through the Harkness Fellowships in Health Care Policy and Practice, which now includes Fellows from nine industrialized countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, the Fund continues this important tradition of investing in talented mid-career professionals to build leadership capacity and international networks for ongoing exchange and collaboration.