A Modern History of Social Workers

History of Social Work Timeline

Infographic depicting key events from the modern history of social workers.

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1819: Thomas Chalmers Restructures St. John’s Parish

Preacher and mathematician Thomas Chalmers becomes minister of St. John’s church parish in Glasgow, Scotland, and experiments with its organizational structure. He strongly dissuades the poor from relying on official relief from the city council. Instead, Chalmers divides the parish into several districts, linking each to a responsible deacon who makes frequent, friendly home visits to the poor and monitors their situation. Chalmers also organizes educational opportunities for children.

These principles translate into one of his core concepts: “to help the poor to help themselves.”  Chalmers’ influence extends to many figures including Charles Loch, Joseph Tuckermann and Mary Richmond.

1864: Octavia Hill Creates a Social Housing Model

Octavia Hill seeks to aid the poor and unemployed who live in London’s poorest neighborhoods. Under the belief that housing is a necessity, Hill purchases three houses that she rents weekly. She also discusses with tenants the problems they face, and Hill uses housing for other activities such as developing gardens, creating playgrounds for children and organizing excursions. Her motto is “help without alms.”

Hill’s housing stock yields a return of 5 percent, making it a sound investment. She expands her work, gaining support and funding. Other women receive training for a role similar to Hill’s, allowing them to act as social workers.

1869: First Charity Organization Society Founded

Octavia Hill and Helen Bosanquet establish the first Charity Organization Society (COS). It focuses on fundraising and dispersing funds in a systematic fashion. Volunteers befriend applicants for assistance, making individual assessments of the reason for their poverty and helping correct those reasons.

1877: America’s First Charity Organization Society Founded

Rev. Stephen Humphreys Gurteen establishes the first COS in Buffalo, New York. Volunteers provide advice rather than money to poor people. Within a decade, most larger cities have a COS.

1889: Hull House Opens

Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr open Hull House in Chicago to provide social and educational opportunities to primarily European immigrants. The settlement house offers classes in a wide range of subjects, free concerts and lectures, and clubs for adults and children. Hull House becomes the standard for settlement houses across the country.

Addams is recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States and in 1931 becomes the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Starr is heavily involved in the arts and crafts movement and founds both the Chicago Public School Art Society and the Chicago Society of Arts and Crafts.

1894: Amos Warner Publishes First Social Welfare Textbook in America

Amos Warner publishes American Charities, the first social welfare textbook in America. This book becomes the standard text for social workers in the first quarter of the 20th century. It breaks down the causes of poverty, disease and other areas such as unemployment, accidents and the lack of medical care. Two basic approaches to these issues include “therapy” (or medical treatment, improving working conditions and eliminating child labor) and “hygiene” (or implementations that range from improving “conditions in life” to “institutionalization”).

1898: First School of Social Work Established

The first school of social work is established at the New York School of Philanthropy, later becoming the Columbia University School of Social Work. The school grows out of a series of summer workshops and training programs for volunteers and visitors. It offers a one-year educational program.

1915: Abraham Flexner Declares That Social Work Is Not a Profession

In an address to the National Conference on Social Welfare, Abraham Flexner declares that social work is not a profession due to a lack of a scientific knowledge base and specific application to solving human issues. He also points to social work lacking educationally communicable techniques and members of the social work profession not having a great deal of individual responsibility.

1917: Mary Richmond Publishes Social Diagnosis

Mary Richmond publishes her most celebrated book, Social Diagnosis, responding to Flexner and helping professionalize social work. It is the first formulation of theory and method in identifying clients’ problems. Richmond is regarded as “the founding mother of case work.”

1917: First Organization for Social Workers Established

The National Social Workers Exchange becomes the first organization for social workers. It focuses on processing applicants for social work jobs. Later, it becomes the American Association for Social Workers (AASW).

1919: Schools of Social Work Combine

Seventeen schools of social work in the United States and Canada combine to form the Association of Training Schools for Professional Social Work. After it is renamed the American Association of Schools of Social Work, it merges with the National Association of Schools of Social Administration to become the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

1928: The Milford Conference

Starting in 1923, social agency executives meet annually at the Milford Conference to discuss social work and its specialties. The primary area of focus is on whether social work is a unified profession with integrated knowledge and skills or a group of technical specialties. In 1928, the conference concludes that social work is one profession with more similarities than differences among its specialties. The following year, the Milford Conference publishes a report titled “Social Case Work: Generic and Specific.”

1933: New Deal Programs

President Franklin D. Roosevelt drafts the New Deal to establish major social welfare programs to combat poverty and unemployment. Programs include the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Roosevelt accomplishes this with the help of talented social workers on staff such as Harry Hopkins, who heads FERA, and Frances Perkins, who serves as U.S. secretary of labor.

1955: National Association of Social Workers Is Created

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is created from seven organizations merging, including the AASW. NASW members comprise members of the organizations and graduates who earn a master’s degree from an accredited school of social work. Membership later opens to social workers with qualified bachelor’s degrees.

1964: Great Society Programs

President Lyndon B. Johnson launches Great Society programs, a set of domestic programs created to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. Legislation leads to the Job Corps, Operation Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the Neighborhood Youth Corps and the Community Action program. Funding is provided to train thousands of social workers and end social work personnel shortages.