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Meet Eva Whiting White, the West End's pioneering social worker

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Boston is a city known for its firsts. First subway, first public park, first public library, and unbeknownst to many, the first school training social workers.

By Jordan Ziese

The Boston School for Social Workers, now Simmons University’s School of Social Work, was the first institution in the United States to grant degrees in Social Work, pioneering education for a field that had yet to define itself when its first graduates walked in the door in 1904.

The School for Social Workers, circa 1904, Courtesy of Simmons University Archives

Among those first graduates was Eva Whiting White, who received her degree from Simmons College in 1907 (men in the program received a diploma from Harvard College). A young widow, Eva would eventually become the dean of the Simmons School of Social Work and a leading advocate for housing, social service programs, and communities in need across the Boston area. Over the course of her career as a Settlement House Worker in the West End and community advocate, Eva saw the field of social work emerge and change right in front of her, and sometimes because of her.

 Eva Whiting White in 1920, Courtesy of Simmons University Archives

Eva reflected on the birth of social work in Boston in a chapter she wrote for the book, "Fifty Years of Boston", in 1930. She noted that Bostonians' generosity is what gave life to the movement so that it could become what it is today. Eva wrote, “The Boston spirit is, at least, not poor in the sense of social responsibility; and the occupations and what is called the social standing of the donors have been as various as the objects of their generosity.” The people of Boston were deeply invested in Eva’s work to ensure that all Bostonians would have the resources to live a happy and healthy life.

Eva Whiting White in 1961, Courtesy of Simmons University Archives

When Eva died in 1974, the field of social work had grown from a single college in Boston to a nationwide commitment to advocating for our cities. The history of social work is the untold stories of thousands of dedicated and unknown workers that can trace the root of their field back into the heart of Boston. To learn more about the individual stories about those who built the field of social work, you can visit the National Association of Social Workers Pioneers in Social Work profiles.


This post was written by Jordan Ziese, a student in the History 380 (Fieldwork) Class at Simmons University. For more information about this class's work studying the history of the West End, see our introductory post to this blog series.