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.
Many of these founding members of the Tavistock Institute went on to play major roles in world affairs. Brigadier John Rawlings Rees became first president of the World Federation for Mental Health. 
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.