Skip to main content

Warner, Amos Griswold

Amos Griswold Warner, (December 21, 1861 – January 17, 1900) — Influential Economist, Social Worker, Author and Educator


Introduction: Amos Warner’s greatest contribution to the professionalization of social work was a system for the statistical analysis of cases. The majority view at his time was that heredity was the cause of personal inadequacy. He was a pioneer in his views that poverty and personal misfortune were not the result of a single cause, but a plethora of causes, many of which could be outside the control of the individual. He set about developing a series of categories to be used in conjunction with a weighted score that allowed for the prioritization of family problems. Additionally, he developed a listing of the possible causes of poverty, categorizing them as subjective (within the individual) or objective (attributed to environmental causes such as industrial or economic conditions).

Bio: Amos Griswold Warner was born December 21, 1861 at Elkader, Iowa, the son of Amos Warner, a distinguished physician and Esther (nee Carter) Warner.  Three months before his birth his father was instantly killed in an accident while returning from a professional visit.  Soon after her husband’s death, Mrs. Warner moved her family of four children to a homestead south of Roca, a town near Lincoln, Nebraska.  According to a biography prepared soon after Warner’s death by George Elliott Howard, Ph.D., a friend and colleague:

“…The father, Dr. Amos Warner, was endowed with sound common sense and discriminating judgment. With independence of thought and great tenacity of opinion, he combined the happy faculty of winning friendship and of strongly attaching his friends to himself. These characteristics were enhanced in the son by the rich legacy which he inherited from his gifted mother. Mrs. Esther Carter Warner was a woman of rare strength and beauty of character. According to a friend who knew her for twenty years, “she was kindly and sympathetic, cheerful and active, tolerant, intelligent, firm and uncompromising when principle was at stake, strong in body and in mind.”  She was of the best material of which builders of new states are made; and her active interest in the great moral and social movements of the day was maintained almost to the time of her death, in 1901, at the age of eighty-two….”

Speaking of the educational experience of Amos Warner, Howard wrote:

“…In 1878 he entered the preparatory department of the University of Nebraska. Outwardly, he was then a typical farmer lad: awkward of manner, his face tanned and freckled by exposure to sun and wind, his clothes of the severest country type. Yet soon it was perceived by us all that a rare mind had come among us. The enthusiastic youth threw himself heart and brain into all the larger and nobler activities which make up the modern academic life. He found himself citizen of a democratic society — a microcosm of the larger world beyond — in which he might enjoy the rights and privileges of a full franchise. He soon became a leader in student affairs…”

In his senior year in college, Warner changed his career objective.  As described in Howard’s biography:

“…It was not his early purpose to enter on one of the so-called “higher” professions. He had decided to graduate and then to carry the culture which he had gained into a farmer’s life. Only in his senior year, apparently, was this purpose given up. He then became deeply interested in historical studies…Accordingly, in the autumn of 1885, — three months after taking the bachelor’s degree, — he entered the Johns Hopkins University as a graduate student in economics. Very soon, among the thirty or forty men gathered around the seminary table, by common consent Warner was cheerfully conceded the first rank. His unusual success won for him a fellowship at the close of the first year of study. A few months later, in the beginning of 1887 — with more than a year’s work yet to do before reaching the doctorate — he received his first call to public service. One Sunday a characteristic address on some social problem attracted the notice of Mr. John Glenn, member of an old Maryland family, and deeply interested in practical philanthropy. As a result, Warner accepted an invitation to become the General Secretary of the Charity Organization Society of Baltimore. The plow-boy of Roca undertook this extremely difficult social service for the Southern metropolis, and he discharged his task with conspicuous success. His work drew the attention of the philanthropists of the entire country. ….”

Through his efforts, central committee membership of the COS increased which, in turn, increased the city-wide area from which agents could solicit funds and gain support for reform projects. In an effort to develop standard practices of procedure, Dr. Warner established the Difficult Case Committee, where the most experienced workers from each district met to discuss the biological and social aspects of unusual cases. Under his leadership, the bonds between the districts were strengthened and the demand for services grew in conjunction with the support to meet those demands.

Warner received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1888. On September 5, 1888, Warner married Miss Cora Ellen Fisher and they had two children: a girl and a boy.

Professional Career:  Howard’s biography of Warner later describes a new challenge for Warner:

“…Then followed the second and most important call to public service. In 1891 he was selected by President Harrison to become the first Superintendent of Charities for the District of Columbia under the act which Congress had recently passed. The appointment was in no sense political. In fact it was opposed by both senators from Nebraska, who desired the office as a “plum” for an “old soldier” of their party. Through the influence of such men as John Glenn, Professor Ely, President Gilman, and Senator Dawes, the place came to him in recognition of the preeminent fitness which his administration of the charities of Baltimore had disclosed. It was a post demanding hard work, signal ability, and rare tact in the management of men. The charities of the District were in a chaotic condition. The appropriations of Congress were distributed in a haphazard and ineffective way among a number of ecclesiastical and private philanthropic institutions. Any plan of the superintendent to apportion equitably and scientifically the funds hereafter to be provided by Congress was sure to provoke selfish opposition. A powerful hostile lobby had to be overcome. How all difficulties eventually were surmounted and the great task of carrying out the design of the federal statute finally was accomplished cannot here be described. It must suffice to say that the suggestions regarding the details of organization and the appropriations of money submitted in Warner’s two special reports were adopted and put in force by Congress; and thus a model system of organized charities was created for the national capital. Meantime he had achieved a supplementary work of great social value to the city. At his instance Congress had been induced to found a Board of Children’s Guardians, an institution only second in importance to the charity organization itself…”.

In 1893 Warner was appointed to the professorship in Leland Stanford Junior University which he held up to his death. According to his biographer:

“…When he began his work at Stanford, in the spring of 1893, his physical strength was already impaired by too strenuous labors in Washington. Toward the close of the academic year, in 1894, he wrote the “American Charities.” It was a fatal tour de force. Although in large measure the fruit of years of thought and experience, in its published form it was struck off in a very few weeks of incessant toil. Under this fearful strain his constitution began to yield, and during the ensuing summer its ruin was made complete through the exposure endured in an outing trip. In November, 1894, under his physician’s advice, he gave up teaching and began what proved to be five years’ vain search for health.…”

Warner’s book American Charities was the first comprehensive effort to describe the entire philanthropic system and to bring together existing knowledge and experience in dealing with problems of charity.  It is considered to be the first attempt to find a scientific approach to poverty.  The book later became one of the standard textbooks in schools of social work.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Sources: American Charities, by Amos G. Warner, Third Edition, Revised by Mary Roberts Coolidge, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Mills College, Formerly Associate Professor of Sociology in the Leland Stanford Junior University — With A Biographical Preface by George Elliott Howard, Ph.D.,  Head Professor of Political Science And Sociology in the University of Nebraska (July 1, 1908. 
Revised February 20th, 1918).

Social Work Honor Roll: Ten Who Made A Difference 1880-1930, A pamphlet produced by the University of Maryland School of Social Work.  No date given.

NASW Foundation: Social Work Pioneers

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America (1986). Walter I. Trattner, Editor. Greenwood Press, New York, Westport, CT

One Reply to “Warner, Amos Griswold”

  1. […] narrative, Reisch began in the late 19th century with the scientific charity movement and Amos Griswold Warner, who brought professional and statistical rigor to his study of the immigrant poor in New York even […]

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.

View graphic version