Social Work: History of the Brown School

St. Louis School of Philanthropy was founded in 1904 as a response to the widespread poverty and health problems rising in St. Louis.  Ambrose P. Winston, an economics professor at Washington University published an article titled, Is it an Advantage to a University to be Placed in a City? In the article he stated:

“For all divisions of social science (Economics, Charities and Corrections, Education, Government)…, the city best contributes the material needed by the student. Some of these studies are scarcely possible outside of a city. Poverty, crime, and vice, and the means of dealing with them, cannot be studied from books alone; the student must observe the facts at first hand.”

Chancellor Houston envisioned that the social work school would “present to the city university an unusual opportunity to render very great service to the city and to humanity.”

Although originally affiliated with the University of Missouri, the St. Louis School of Philanthropy moved to Washington University in 1909 under the new name: St. Louis School of Social Economy.

betty_bofinger_brown-1In the spring of 1928, Mrs. George Warren Brown (image above) offered to Chancellor Throop a sum of money left by her husband that she dedicated to the endowment of the social work school. At the dedication of the newly built George Warren Brown Memorial Hall in 1927, Mrs. Brown was described as someone who “was greatly interested in hospitals, missions, children’s homes, in the Red Cross, the Symphony Orchestra, the Y.W.C.A., the Missouri Home Finding Society, the national organization for young girls known as the King’s Daughters, of which she became president, and participated most generously in many, many private philanthropies, both large and small, of which no one, except her and her secretary, was ever aware.” Thanks to her, Washington University has been able to expand the Brown School into one of the most prominent social work schools in the country.

corresp-1930_002Above: A letter from the National Conference of Social Work, sent in 1930 as the field of social work was starting to be recognized among academics

Below: George Warren Brown Hall, 1937Brown-Hall_Jan-1937It is important to remember, however, what the profession of Social Work was developed for: to understand and combat the systemic inequalities in our city.  (below, Social Work students in classroom, 1980)

soc-80-546A-29Today Washington University can seem rather removed from St. Louis. We are the University on the hill, cozy in the suburbs and not confronting many of the economic and racial problems happening around us.  Today we challenge the thinking of those such as Ambrose P. Winston.  We cannot only treat our neighbors in St. Louis like subjects to be studied.  Today I believe we must push ourselves, individually and collectively, as people and as an institution, to be self-reflective in our work, to work with community members, and to dismiss the savior attitude that can come so easily when attempting to help from afar.


Read more about the Brown School’s history in the book What We Believe: a history of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work

Consult the University Archives for additional documents related to the history of Social Work, located in many collections, including:

School of Social Work (Kansas City Unit) Records, 1938-1949

Publications – Brown School of Social Work, 1907-2011

Brown School of Social Work Administrative Records, 1922-2002

Mary C. Hester Papers, 1936-1966

William Gordon and Margaret Schutz Gordon Papers, 1941-1980

Muriel and Ralph Pumphrey Papers, 1934-1993

Dean of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work: Shanti Khinduka Records, 1901-2004

Delmo Housing Corporation Records, 1945-1989

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.