Edith Abbott (1876-1957) was born in Grand Island, Nebraska. She was one of the first women in America to earn a doctoral degree. In 1924, she became the dean of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, a position she held for 18 years. As such, she had a profound influence on the emerging field of social work.
Abbott came from a family that had an intense interest in social activism. Her mother participated in the abolitionist and women's rights movements. Abbott's sister, Grace, served as the chief of the Children's Bureau within the U.S. Department of Labor from 1921 to 1934. Abbott graduated from a girls' boarding school in Omaha in 1893.
Although Abbott wanted to attend college, her parents could not afford it at the time. Consequently, Abbott returned to Grand Island and taught high school for 2 years. She eventually attended the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1901. She went on to attend the University of Chicago, earning a Ph.D. in economics in 1905. The following year she continued her studies in England, attending both the University College of London and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It was at the London School that she was exposed to new methods of combating poverty.
After returning to America, she joined her sister Grace in 1908 in Chicago to volunteer at Hull-House, the first settlement house founded in the country. Settlement houses were community centers in poor neighborhoods that were staffed and managed by college-educated women. While working at Hull-House Abbott promoted improvements in housing for the poor, as well as new laws to protect immigrants, working women, and children.
She became an assistant to Sophonisba Breckinridge, the director of social research at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. In this capacity, she contributed to many studies of juvenile delinquents.
In 1920, Abbott helped move the School of Civics and Philanthropy to the University of Chicago, where it became the School of Social Service Administration. It was the first graduate school of social work at an American university. Abbott taught in the school for 33 years, and she served as dean from 1924 to 1942.
Abbott had a significant effect on the new profession of social work. She firmly believed that universities should oversee education for social work and should be conducted at the graduate school level. In addition, she was convinced that a sound education in social work must include fieldwork, where students could gain actual experience. Abbott not only created the curriculum for social work education but also wrote all of the early literature necessary to teach social work students, amounting to over 100 books and studies.
After retiring from the University of Chicago in 1953, she returned to her family's home in Nebraska. She died in 1957.