In 1920, Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge founded one of the country’s first graduate schools of social work at the University of Chicago. That school, now known as the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, embodied the belief that social change happens when research guides policy and practice. Today, UChicago faculty and students work to make a direct impact in communities—uplifting and improving the lives of those most marginalized.
Social workers engage in a range of professional activities. Some work directly with individuals, families or groups to address a wide range of social issues. Others lead social service or community organizations, conduct research to inform social policies and practice, or lead government policymaking efforts.
As a profession, “social work” didn’t exist until the late 19th century. As people crowded into cities seeking opportunities, poverty and poor labor conditions were rampant. These dire conditions inspired social reformers to take action.
Among those reformers were Sophonisba Breckinridge and sisters Edith and Grace Abbott. They joined settlement houses—institutions that provided child care and basic health services to the communities around them. They also conducted social science research, a radical approach at the time, to uncover the root causes of social problems.
These settlements inspired the creation of schools designed to train a professional corps of social workers. In 1920, when Breckinridge and Abbott guided the merger of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy with the University of Chicago, they fulfilled their vision that social work education should be conducted “in close connection with a good university (and because) the modern university also needs such a school.”
Today, that school—now known as the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice—is widely recognized as one of the top social work schools in the United States. Its faculty and students build on a tradition of integrating research, education, and direct intervention to address the most pressing social challenges and to advance a more just and humane world.
Explore UChicago Library’s archival collections on social work