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The Institute was founded in 1946 by a group of key figures at the Tavistock Clinic including Elliott Jaques, Henry Dicks, Leonard Browne, Ronald Hargreaves, John Rawlings Rees, Mary Luff and Wilfred Bion, with Tommy Wilson as chairman, funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Other well-known names that joined the group later were John D. Sutherland, John Bowlby, Eric Trist, and Fred Emery. Kurt Lewin, a member of the Frankfurt school in America, was an important influence on the work of the Tavistock, according to Eric Trist, who expresses his admiration for Lewin in his autobiography.
Perhaps the most influential figure to emerge from the Institute was the psychoanalyst Isabel Menzies Lyth. Her seminal (1959) paper 'A case study in the functioning of social systems as a defence against anxiety'inspired a whole of organisational theory focused on unconscious forces that shape organisational life.
Jock Sutherland became director of the new post-war Tavistock Clinic, when it was incorporated into the newly established British National Health Service in 1946. Ronald Hargreaves became deputy director of the World Health Organization. Tommy Wilson became chairman of the Tavistock Institute.
Many well-known psychologists and psychiatrists have passed through the Tavistock Institute over the years, and it became known as the focal point in Britain for psychoanalysis and the psychodynamic theories of Sigmund Freud and his followers. Other names associated with the Tavistock are Melanie Klein, Carl Gustav Jung, J. A. Hadfield, Beckett, Charles Rycroft, Wilfred Bion, and R. D. Laing.
According to its website, the Institute engages in educational, research, and consultancy work in the social sciences and applied psychology. Its clients are chiefly public sector organizations, including the European Union, several British government departments, and some private clients. The Institute owns Human Relations, the international social sciences journal. It also edits the journal Evaluation.
It provides two MSc degree courses:
The Tavistock Institute shares common roots with other organisations that emerged from the Tavistock Clinic. This is a source of much confusion, though the facts can be ascertained from the historical account of the Tavistock by Eric Trist, one time chairman of the Institute.
The Clinic is now part of a National Health Service trust, while the "Tavistock Institute", which once did research in many areas and was funded by many sources, is now a charity.
The name "Tavistock Institute of Medical Psychology", which was the name used for the original parent body, is now used to refer to an organization that grew out of that parent body but now specializes in couples relationships under the section name of the "Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships".