Skip to main content

Wright, Helen R.

Helen R. Wright (1891-1969) – Researcher and Social Work Educator


Introduction: Helen Russell Wright was a pioneer social researcher, economist, and social work educator. She was the first president of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). She also had the formidable task of becoming dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Chicago in1941, a position she held until 1956. Following in the footsteps  Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott and Sophonisba Breckenridge she became an important transitional figure in the emerging profession of social work, one who often went against the then current trends by advocating for social reform supported by research as opposed to the total emphasis on the primacy of casework within the profession.

Education and Career: Wright was born 1891 in Glenwood, Iowa. Her parents were Carlton Clark Wright, an attorney, and Lucy (nee Russell) Wright.  She received a bachelor’s degree from Smith College in 1912.  Her experiences at Smith College introduced her to the concepts of social reform; and she decided to then went to the University of Chicago and studied economics and social work under Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckenridge at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. It was here that she developed her affinity for social reform through applied research and economic understandings. In 1922 she received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. She received an appointment as a staff member at the Brookings Graduate Institution of Economics where she conducted research for studies on the nation’s capacity to produce goods and its inability to purchase them.

In 1928 Dean Abbott asked Wright to join the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration to strengthen its research program. It was there that Wright continued to engage in the applied research necessary for the development of social services and successful social reform. She published a number of articles in the Social Service Review and conducted several studies for the United States Children’s Bureau. In 1941, Wright was appointed as Edith Abbott’s successor as dean of the Social Service Administration, a position she held until 1956. From 1950 to 1956 she was editor of the Social Service Review. In these years she was particularly concerned with the future of social work in the post World War II era and published a number of articles on this subject.

Upon her retirement from the deanship in 1957, the CSWE asked Wright to head a technical assistance team being sent to India to assist in the development of a school of social work there. Again, she published articles and a book concerning her experience. After her return from India, Wright lived in Pasadena, California where she continued to conduct research and teach part time at the University of Southern California. She died on August 14, 1969, after a long illness.

Source: NASW Social Work Pioneers:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): NASW Foundation. (2004). Helen R. Wright (1891-1969). Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=8309.


View graphic version