Edward Harkness

  • Hometown: New York, N.Y.
  • Sex: Male
  • Alma Mater: Yale University
  • Religion: Episcopalian
  • Era: 20th Century
  • Source of Fortune:
    • Inheritance
  • Philanthropic Focus:
    • Arts
    • Health
    • Higher Education
    • K-12 Education
    • Museums

Edward Harkness is perhaps the least well-known of the major American philanthropists of the first half of the 20th century. His relative obscurity is all the more surprising given the scale of his charitable giving; he was among the very largest donors of his era. The John Rockefellers, father and son, each gave away over $500 million, while Andrew Carnegie’s gifts amounted to $325 million. They were followed by a handful of contemporaries whose lifetime giving exceeded $100 million: James Buchanan Duke, George Eastman, Nettie Fowler McCormick—and Edward S. Harkness.

Edward Harkness inherited his wealth; he was the last surviving heir of a massive fortune created by his father’s early investment in Standard Oil. His privileges as a child did not prevent him from becoming a serious, orderly man. “A dollar misspent is a dollar lost,” he often said. Harkness appeared to take his greatest pleasure in philanthropy, which was the principal occupation of his lifetime. When a friend once cautioned him against a particularly large donation, Harkness is said to have replied: “What’s the use of having the money if you can’t have the fun of spending it?”

And spend it he did—for the benefit of others. Biographer James Willett Wooster estimates that Harkness gave away roughly $129 million before his death in 1940. (Wooster only counted gifts of more than $5,000, so Harkness’ total was almost certainly higher.) Harkness dedicated his giving to three principal causes: fine arts, health care, and top educational institutions. He concludes that Harkness is unknown today because his philanthropy was largely guided by a “passion for anonymity.”

Born in 1874, Edward was the youngest of five children born to Stephen V. Harkness. His father was a prominent Cleveland merchant who had success in distilled spirits. In 1867, Stephen agreed to invest $100,000 in a fledgling company headed by an ambitious young man named John D. Rockefeller. When Standard Oil offered its first 10,000 shares of stock, Rockefeller ended up with 2,667 shares to Harkness’s 1,334. (After several recapitalizations, Harkness’s ownership evened out at around 10 percent.) As Standard Oil boomed, Harkness remained a silent partner.

In 1888, Stephen Harkness died without a will, leaving a $150 million fortune. His wife, Anna, inherited a “widow’s third,” which was administered by two of her sons, Charles and Edward. Anna had for many years quietly supported local churches and charitable organizations, but eventually became a leading philanthropist in her own right. Edward’s initial work in philanthropy came from serving as the manager of his mother’s large-scale charitable giving. 

When Charles died in 1916, Anna and Edward gave $3 million to Yale University for the construction of Memorial Quadrangle in his honor; four years later, they gave the college another $3 million to increase faculty salaries. Support for higher education and cultural institutions remained a central element of the family’s philanthropy, with notable contributions to the Tuskegee Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the New York Public Library, and the New York Zoological Society. In 1922, Edward and Anna Harkness acquired a 22-acre site in Washington Heights and donated the land to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital (later merged into New York-Presbyterian). As late as 1992, undeveloped land from this donation was being turned into auxiliary facilities for the hospital.

Perhaps the most visible achievement of Edward and Anna Harkness was the creation of the Commonwealth Fund in 1918. Endowed with $10 million, the fund was chartered with the almost comically broad mandate of doing “something for the welfare of mankind.” Among its first commitments was support for medical research, and the Commonwealth Fund supported the work of scientists pursuing (among other things) the causes of hypertension, the treatment and prevention of pneumonia, and the causes of tooth decay.

The Harkness family traced its roots to Dumfriesshire, and Edward retained a lifelong love of Great Britain. In 1925, Harkness set up a series of fellowships, administered by the Commonwealth Fund, to enable graduate students from Britain and its dominions to study in the United States. One of the first scholarships went to Alistair Cooke, who spent decades at the BBC, explaining America to the British listening public. Harkness supported a range of other charities in the United Kingdom. In 1930, during the depths of the Great Depression, he donated £2 million to create the Pilgrim Trust, which to this day preserves historic sites, offers university scholarships, and funds treatment for those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.

With encouragement from his wife, Mary Harkness, Edward became a leading patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were lifelong collectors of Egyptian art and antiquaries, and their contributions to the Met, begun in 1913, were rivaled only by those of J. Pierpont Morgan. In 1917, they donated a ceramic turquoise hippopotamus from the Middle Kingdom; it has since been the museum’s unofficial mascot, affectionately nicknamed “William.”

Perhaps Harkness’ most significant accomplishments were in the field of elite education. He was a benefactor of America’s most prestigious secondary schools, including his alma mater of St. Paul’s, Lawrenceville, Taft, Hill, and especially Phillips Exeter. He grabbed headlines in 1930 with a $5.8 million donation to Phillips Exeter, a gift that capped class size at 12 students, all of whom were to share a common table with their instructor. The “Harkness Table”—with, as he put it, “no corners to hide behind”—remains a core element of the school’s pedagogy.

The same concern for collegiality informed Harkness’ extensive giving to higher education. (Beneficiaries included Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Oberlin, Connecticut College, and scores of others.) He saw American universities adopting the model of the large German research institutions, and feared that students were losing the sociability of collegiate life. Harkness’ preferred solution was to promote the British model, in which a university was divided into smaller residential houses where students would live, dine, study, and gather.

In 1926, having already endowed the drama school, he approached Yale, offering to donate $12 million to build a series of residential colleges on the Oxbridge model. After a year of negotiations, Yale declined. Harkness immediately met with Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, offering to fund a similar scheme of residential houses. “It took Lowell about 10 seconds to accept,” Samuel Eliot Morison noted in a 1942 history of Harvard. “Thus a Yale man became the greatest benefactor to Harvard in our entire history.” Harvard built seven residential houses with the Harkness gift—and Yale soon after accepted $15.8 million for the construction of eight residential houses, which remain an integral part of campus life.

“One of the most difficult tasks in the world is giving away money wisely,” wrote Lowell, in a tribute shortly after Harkness’s death, “and philanthropic multi-millionaires usually, and quite correctly, avoid it by forming a board or committee to do the work for them. Not so Mr. Harkness.”

Further reading:

  • Lewis Perry, “Edward and Mary Harkness,”Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 1951
  • George Wilson Pierson, Yale: The University College, 1921-1937 (Yale Press, 1955)
  • James Willett Wooster, Edward S. Harkness (Commonwealth Fund, 1949)