Health Professions

Early Social Work Education in St. Louis

Social work education in St. Louis had its rocky start in the first quarter of the 20th century. The original impetus for formal training came from workers of the St. Louis Provident Association who wished to raise their level of knowledge and skills in helping clients of the service agency. The workers’ informal discussions turned into a series of conferences open to all charitable and social workers of the city. In 1903 the School of Philanthropic Work was founded and formal classes were led by the general manager of the Provident Association.

In 1906 the School became affiliated with the University of Missouri and was re-named the St. Louis School of Philanthropy. When the Missouri legislature reduced the University’s appropriation in 1909, the School was dropped from the budget. The trustees of the St. Louis School of Philanthropy approached Washington University, which agreed to affiliate with the school, renaming it the St. Louis School of Social Economy. Washington University took over the direction and administration of the School in 1913, making it a department of the university.

Problems arose almost immediately, however, when funding from an early supporter, the Russell Sage Foundation, was reduced and then discontinued. The St. Louis School of Social Economy was out of step with the national trends in social work education prevalent at the time, stressing academics, research and reform rather than the more practical aspects of casework and treatment. The Board of Directors of Washington University also became increasingly uncomfortable with the liberal activities of the school’s faculty and their emphasis on social causes, such as civil rights for African-Americans.

At the end of the 1915 academic year, the St. Louis School of Social Economy was dropped from Washington University completely. It operated autonomously for one year, then re-affiliated with the University of Missouri under the name Missouri School of Social Economy. More practice classes, such as “Methods of Family Treatment” and “Practical Problems of Casework,” were added to the curriculum. Nevertheless, the majority of courses offered still were concerned with social reform issues such as “Problems of Poverty” and “Race Problems.”

The Missouri School of Social Economy closed in 1924, after the Missouri legislature passed an appropriations bill that expressly forbid the use of state funds to support the school. Local St. Louis social agencies did not protest the closing of the school, having been alienated by the school’s continued emphasis on theory rather than practice in social work education.

In 1925, after extensive negotiations with the St. Louis Community Council, Washington University agreed to begin a new School of Social Work as a unit in the School of Business and Public Administration. In 1928 the trustees of the estate of George Warren Brown, who died in 1921, turned over his residual estate to Washington University for the use of the social work department. [His widow Betty Boffinger Brown, who died in 1934, left a sizable bequest to the Department as well.] The George Warren Brown Department of Social Work was in step with the trends in social work at the time, training students in techniques and stressing the professionalization of the field. The curriculum was characterized by practice courses emphasizing the development of technical rather than analytical skills. The specializations offered grew to include medical social work, psychiatric social work, social group work, public welfare, child welfare, family social work, and social welfare organization. The George Warren Brown School of Social Work became an independent School within the University in 1945.