Early History and Traditions of the School

Foundations in Economics

The genesis of the School of Social Work at UW-Madison dates to 1896, when the economics department offered courses in Charities and Corrections, courses designed to educate students in activities related to Scientific Philanthropy. The next fifty years saw the development of an increasingly coherent and diversified social work curriculum, culminating in 1946 with the founding of an autonomous social work program on campus.

Helen I. Clarke

Professor Helen I. Clarke


While courses in Scientific Philanthropy were offered during the first two decades of the century, the professional Social Work Curriculum began to develop in 1920 when the Economics Department recruited Professor Helen I. Clarke with the explicit aim of developing a professional program in social work. Professor Clarke, a graduate of Smith College and a social worker in settlement houses in New York City, had taken courses at what would later become the Columbia School of Social Work. The American Red Cross financed Professor Clarke’s initial appointment at the university in an attempt to demonstrate that social work education had a valid place on a university campus.


By 1926, the University Bulletin had a section listing courses in social work.  It read:

The demand for trained workers in the different fields of Social Service is greater than can be supplied. The fields include family and child welfare, juvenile protection and probation, mother’s pension, medical and psychiatric social work, and the work of school attendance officers, Community Chest executives, and visiting teachers.


To help supply this need The Department of Economics has coordinated the courses offered by the University which provide training for Social Work thereby giving students who desire a liberal education the fundamental and technical training which will hasten their preparation for these fields.


Social work courses were designed to provide beginning “technical education training in the adjustment of personality to social conditions on the one hand and of social conditions to personality on the other.”


Great Depression Era Social Work

Between 1926 and 1945, the coordination of the social work program became the responsibility of the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology. By 1940, the Bulletin listed seven social work courses, including 300 hours of field work at local social welfare agencies. A certificate in social work was given to graduates who attained proficiency during their field work and passed an examination on the theory and technique of social work.


The two decades between 1926 and 1945 were difficult years for the social work program. All social work courses and field training were taught by Professor Clarke. Despite an appeal for adequate support and despite the fact that the demand for social workers in the state increased exponentially during the 1930s depression years in a state with a reputation for progressive legislation, the legislature and the Board of Regents were reluctant to support the social work program. Nonetheless, the program made efforts to meet the demand for social work training on the part of local communities by organizing institutes and workshops throughout the state, including offering three days to three weeks of social work training to several hundred emergency public assistance workers who came to campus for this training. Many of the workers who attended these training institutes went on to lead New Deal programs and gained national prominence.


Arthur Miles

Arthur Miles

A New Era in Social Work

The social work faculty and community advocated for a more adequately staffed and a better funded program. These efforts began to pay off in 1944.  This, combined with the end of World War II and the influx of veterans, prompted the university to plan for expansion.  In 1944, the university appointed Arthur Miles, a former county administrator for the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission and former regional statistician for the U.S. Social Security Board, to head the social work program.  He would later serve as the school’s first chair and then director (1946-1960).


By 1946, the social work program was sufficiently well organized and funded that the Board of Regents authorized the separation of the social work program from the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology and authorized its establishment as a separate Department of Social Work offering a two-year Master’s degree in Social Work.  Several years later the school would assume responsibility for the undergraduate social work major. In 1950, the School hired Professor Alfred Kadushin, whose contributions to social work education and the school continue today. Emeritus Professor Kadushin’s classic works–including Child Welfare Services, The Social Work Interview, Supervision in Social Work, and Consultation in Social Work –continue to be the standard for social work education throughout the world.

Alfred Kadushin, Ph.D., Julia Lathrop Distinguished Professor of Social Work (image courtesy of NASW Foundation)


In 1952, the school was admitted as a charter member of the Council on Social Work Education, the national social work education accrediting organization. Between 1946 and 1963, the school was responsible for the graduate program at the UW-Milwaukee as well as Madison. In 1963, the autonomous School of Social Welfare in Milwaukee was authorized by the Board of Regents. In 1968, an important change in the school’s organization occurred when the Ph.D. Program in Social Welfare was authorized.


Throughout its history, the school has had a somewhat different theoretical orientation from most schools of social work, an orientation that proved to influence the field. Influenced perhaps by university pioneers in labor and social legislation, as well as social work’s functional school, the school’s orientation has reflected a social science, social change perspective. This is in contrast to the more personalistic, psychoanalytic orientations of many early social work programs. Professor Miles wrote American Social Work Theory in defense of such an orientation. Later, the foundation for the school’s generalist model of social work practice was solidified by Professor Virginia Franks’s paper “The Autonomous Social Worker,” and Professors Allen Pincus and Anne Minahan’s Social Work Practice: Model and Method. This conceptual framework was adopted by most schools of social work throughout the United States as well as internationally.


A Long-Awaited Shift

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the pendulum in American social work finally swung toward the ideas long held at Wisconsin, namely that the social world of those served by social workers deserved major consideration in social work education. This shift in emphasis focused attention on poverty, housing, minority group problems, public welfare policy, and similar matters. At the same time, the federal government began to increase support for social work education. Using these funds, the school developed a model of faculty-based field units, which continues to be the framework around which our field education is organized. The field unit and integrative seminar serves as a guided introduction to social work practice as faculty and community practitioners, working together, teach students the practical application of social work values, knowledge, and skills. It is the critical intersection in the program where social problems and policy, research, and methods components are applied to practice situations.

Martin B. Loeb

Martin B. Loeb, Ph.D. (image courtesy of Association for Gerontology in Higher Education)


It was also at this point that the school began to achieve national stature. In addition, members of the school’s faculty were instrumental in establishing several important programs at the UW-Madison, including the Institute for Research on Poverty (Jack Lefcowitz, Martin Loeb), the Aging Institute (Vivian Wood, Martin Loeb, Mary Wylie), the Waisman Center (Norma Berkowitz, Martin Loeb), and the Women’s Studies Program (Diane Kravetz).


Several themes have remained consistent throughout the school’s history, continuing to this day. The school has maintained its focus on championing the cause of the vulnerable populations in our country through its work in social policy, by developing social work practice theory, and by contributing to a better understanding of social problems. Our current goals and programs reflect our dedication to carrying on this tradition.

Last edited by karnaky on Friday, July 22, 2016 | Printer Friendly Version