As difficult as it may be to believe, the field of social work hasn’t existed for very long. For much of human history, little to no effort was made to take an organized approach to assisting people in distress. Fortunately, that all started changing around the turn of the 20th century. Modern social work owes a great deal to some of its earliest pioneers. Learn more about them to gain inspiration for your own career.
1. Clara Barton
During the Civil War, Clara Barton, a recording clerk, was appalled by the conditions under which soldiers were treated after being wounded in battle and decided to take matters into her own hands. By the end of the war, she was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” and “her boys,” as the soldiers were affectionately known, sung her praises far and wide. This selfless woman then eschewed starting a family in favor of going overseas to study the Swiss Red Cross. She founded the American Red Cross in 1881 at the age of 60 and played a crucial role in shaping the organization.
2. Jane Addams
An inspiration to social workers around the globe, Jane Addams chose to voluntarily live with the poorest Americans to understand their plight. Moved by what she discovered, she founded Hull House in Chicago, a huge social services agency that assisted more than 2,000 people per week. A pacifist, she also famously opposed World War I. Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
3. Jeannette Rankin
Rankin paved the way for generations of future female social workers by being a bona fide trailblazer. In 1916, she became the first woman elected to Congress, and she was the only member of Congress to vote against World Wars I and II. In addition to being a well-known pacifist, she worked tirelessly in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1919, she was selected to serve on the Women’s International Conference for Peace. Dedicated to social causes and pacifism throughout her life, she opposed the Korean and Vietnam Wars as an elderly woman.
4. Edward Devine
After earning a PhD in economics in 1919, Edward Devine took what he had learned and applied it to the burgeoning field of social work. Early in his career, he focused his efforts on children’s welfare and on housing for the poor. While serving as president of New York City’s Charity Organization Society, he assigned volunteers to act as agents. These professionals are widely regarded as being pre-cursors to modern-day social workers. Devine also left his mark by being the first to use the term “case work,” which is also where the term “case worker” originated.
5. Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins spent the vast majority of his life trying to make life easier and better for underprivileged people. As a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, he helped create crucial New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. After serving as the secretary of New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare, he relocated to New Orleans, where he ran the Gulf Division of the American Red Cross. He also wrote the official charter for the American Association of Social Workers and became president of that organization in 1923.
If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in social work, study up more about these trailblazing social workers. Their stories are sure to give you the inspiration that you need to see the amazing rewards that go along with dedicating your life to such selfless work–and to make it through the training and education that you’ll need to do it.