Seven Important Figures in Social Work's Past and Present

From women’s suffrage to civil rights, pioneers in social work paved the way for improved conditions for America’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. These seven professionals ushered in profound social change.

Jane Addams

After graduating from college in 1881, Ms. Addams traveled to Europe, where she was inspired by London’s Toynbee Hall and its work with the city’s poor. Ms. Addams moved to Chicago and opened Hull-House, a charity that served over 2,000 citizens each week. An outspoken opponent of America’s entry into World War I, Ms. Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in 1931.

Jeanette Rankin

In 1916, Ms. Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress, and was an ardent advocate of women’s suffrage. Perhaps best known for her pacifist activities, Ms. Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against both World War I and World War II. In 1919, she was selected to the Women’s International Conference for Peace. Prior to her death in 1973, Rankin spoke against the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Harry Hopkins

Hopkins, an influential advisor to Franklin Roosevelt, was instrumental in crafting New Deal programs like the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He began his career in New York City as secretary of the Bureau of Child Welfare, eventually moving to New Orleans to run the American Red Cross Gulf Division. He wrote the charter for the American Association of Social Workers, serving as its first president in 1923.

Edward Devine

After earning a PhD in Economics in 1889, Devine applied his knowledge of economics to the field of social work, devoting his attentions to housing for the poor and the welfare of children. As president of New York’s Charity Organization Society, a sprawling agency, Devine organized volunteers into specially trained “agents,” the precursors of today’s modern social worker. He also coined the term “case work.”

Whitney M. Young, Jr.

Young earned a master’s in Social Work from the University of Minnesota, and became one of the most influential directors of the National Urban League, serving from 1961 until his death in 1971. He worked tirelessly on the Civil Rights Movement, lobbying for Civil Rights legislation. He worked closely with presidents of both parties, and was eulogized by President Nixon, who had wanted Young to serve in his cabinet.

Albert Feldman

Feldman used his background as a research chemist to pioneer public health programs in Los Angeles. His main legacy is in mental health. His work laid the foundation for suicide prevention centers, halfway houses for the mentally ill, and in-home care for the chronically mentally ill. He also founded the nation’s first school of gerontology in 1975.

Abraham Novick

Focusing his study on the intersection of social work and criminal justice, Novick was a pioneer in integrated care for juvenile delinquents. His work led to the working definition of a female juvenile delinquent as a separate and unique category from males. His work in the 50s still forms the basis for current thinking about female delinquency.

The field of social work covers a lot of ground. From helping the underprivileged to the mentally ill, social workers provide constant care and support to those in need. By pursuing a Masters of Social Work online from University of New England, students can join the ranks of these important figures.


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