Originally called the Commonwealth 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 to advance international understanding and encourage maintenance of the “special relationship” between the United States 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. 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 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. 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.

In 1997, the fellowships were redesigned in order to be more synergistic with the Fund’s mission and overall work. The Harkness Fellowships in Health Care Policy and Practice were launched in 1998 as the centerpiece of the Commonwealth Fund’s new International Health Policy and Practice Innovations program and led by Fund vice president Robin Osborn from 1997 to 2019. Today, under the leadership of Reginald D. Williams II, the Harkness Fellowships remain a flagship of the Fund’s international work.

To learn more about the history of the Commonwealth Fund’s international work, visit our Centennial website.