The Boston School for Social Workers

I’m currently studying at the Simmons University School of Social Work, which is a direct descendant of the Boston School for Social Workers (sometimes referred to as the “Boston School of Social Work”). This school was an influential and historically significant institution, yet there is pretty minimal documentation of it available online. There’s not even a Wikipedia page. So I thought it might be useful to provide a brief history of the Boston School for Social Workers in this post.

The Boston School for Social Workers was an innovative 12-year collaboration between Simmons and Harvard. It was founded in 1904, and Jeffrey Richardson Bracket – a major figure in philanthropic work, then based at Johns Hopkins – was appointed as its director. The school was located at 9 Hamilton Place, not far from the Park Street T station. Harvard left the arrangement in 1916, at which part the school became the Simmons School of Social Work

The Boston School for Social Workers was, arguably, the very first school of social work in the United States. A useful article by Linda M. Shoemaker indicates that it had two rivals for this claim: the New York School of Philanthropy (also founded in 1904) and the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (founded a year earlier, in 1903). The Boston School for Social Workers, however, is distinctive for its use of the term “social work” in its very title, as well as its university affiliation. In this sense it is the progenitor of what we would now recognize as schools of social work.

It is instructive to consider why the partnership with Harvard ended. Richardson suggests that there was a division between more theoretical and more practical elements of social work, and that this division took on a gendered aspect. The more theoretical side was taken to be the province of men and, hence, of Harvard (then an entirely male university). The more practical side was taken to be the province of women and, hence, of Simmons (then an entirely female college, as it remains at the undergraduate level). As this division grew, and as the school grew more practical in its orientation, Harvard withdrew from the agreement, and diverted its energies towards Harvard’s Department of Social Ethics, an object of historical interest in its own right.