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Edith Abbott

co-founder of the first university-based graduate school of social work

Edith Abbott

Edith Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, on September 26, 1876, the first of four children born to Othman and Elizabeth (Griffin) Abbott. Her father was a Civil War veteran, lawyer, and banker, and had also served as the first Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska. Her mother was an active abolitionist and women's suffrage leader. Edith's career as a social activist began at the age of six, when she helped Susan B. Anthony on her national campaign for women's suffrage.

After graduating with high honors from Brownell Hall, a private girls' school in Omaha, in 1893, Abbott took a job as a teacher in the Grand Island high school. Unable to attend college full time, she took correspondence courses from and attended summer sessions at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, from which she earned her degree in 1901. After two more years as a teacher, she went on to the University of Chicago, from which she earned her Ph.D. in economics in 1905. In 1906 she received a Carnegie Fellowship to study at the University College London and the London School of Economics. In London she befriended Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who championed new approaches to dealing with poverty. The Webbs were in favour of repealing the British "poor laws" that they viewed as demeaning to people in poverty, and supported establishing programs to eliminate poverty. Abbott lived part of the time in a social reformers' settlement in a poverty-stricken area of the East End, where she gained experience in social work.

After returning to the United States in 1907, Abbott spent a year teaching economics at Wellesley College, after which she moved to Chicago and joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. In addition to her teaching duties, Abbott contributed to studies of juvenile delinquents and truants. She also created studies on women in industry and problems in the penal system. From 1908 to 1920, she and her sister Grace lived at Hull House, where both worked in support of Jane Addams and her social reform causes.

In 1920, Abbott helped arrange the transfer of the School of Civics and Philanthropy to the University of Chicago, where it became the School of Social Service Administration. The school was the first university-based graduate school of social work. Abbott became the school's dean, the first U.S. woman to become the dean of an American graduate school, in 1924, and served in that position until 1942, during which time she emphasized the importance of formal education in social work and the need to include field experience as part of that training. In 1926, she helped establish the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare.

Important works published by Abbot during this period include the books Women in Industry (1910) and The Real Jail Problem (1915). Together with Sophonisba Breckinridge, she published two major studies: The Delinquent Child and the Home (1912) and Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools (1917). In 1927, she and Breckinridge founded the Social Service Review, in addition to launching the University of Chicago Social Service Series of books and monographs. Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records (1924) and Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem: Select Documents (1926) are just two of the many important works published as part of the latter series.

In addition to teaching and writing, Edith, along with her sister Grace, also worked to end mistreatment of immigrants, for tight restrictions on child labor, for women's suffrage, and on many other social problems of their day. Edith served as president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work from 1925 to 1927, and was a prominent member of the National Committee on Law Enforcement and Observance (the Wickersham Commission) from 1929 to 1931. She also helped draft the Social Security Act of 1935.

Although Abbott retired as dean of the School of Social Service Administration in 1942, she continued to teach there until 1952, when she retired for good and returned to Grand Island. She died at the Abbott family home on July 28, 1957.


National Association of Social Workers
National Women's History Museum

See Also

Civil War
Susan B. Anthony
Jane Addams

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This page was last updated on August 13, 2018.