Today we honor and celebrate one of the earliest and most significant influencers of social work, Mary Ellen Richmond. Born in 1861 in Illinois, Richmond was shuttled from one relative to another in the Baltimore area after her parents died when she was a child. She was mostly home schooled by her grandmother who was known as a radical and a suffragist. After finishing high school, she worked odd jobs and became involved with the charitable works of the Unitarian Church. In 1888, she became the assistant treasurer for the Charity Organization Society and became involved with the charitable works that preceded modern social work. Her administrative duties led to her appointment as general secretary. In addition to her assigned duties, she volunteered as a friendly visitor, the equivalent of an early caseworker.
Concerned about the frequent failures of cases to respond to service, in 1897 she delivered an historic speech at the National Conference of Charities and Correction, calling for schools to train professional social workers. In 1899, she published the first comprehensive presentation of practical suggestions, Friendly Visiting Among the Poor.
In 1900, Ms. Richmond became general secretary of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity. During her tenure, she emphasized the need for volunteer effort; she also fought to obtain legislation for deserted wives. Between 1905 and 1909, Ms. Richmond was associated with Charities, which developed teaching materials for Charity Organization Societies nationwide. She then became director of the Russell Sage Foundation’s Charity Organization Department in New York City. She also taught and did research at the New York School of Philanthropy.
From 1910 through 1922, she developed and headed summer institutes attended by secretaries of charity organization societies from all parts of the country. Her most celebrated book, Social Diagnosis, was based on her lectures and on her wide readings in history, law, logic, medical social work, psychology, and psychiatry. Widely hailed as evidence of the professionalization of social work, it was the first formulation of theory and method in identifying the problems of clients. In 1922, she defined social case work as “those processes which develop personality through adjustments consciously effected, individual by individual, between men and their social environment.” She died in 1928, leaving behind a critical legacy in the field of social work. For all of us social workers that believe we can change the world, we owe Richmond a huge debt.