The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston (1866–1948)

  • B. Berch
Reference work entry


Born on 1 April 1866 in Lexington, Kentucky; died on 30 July 1948 in Chicago, Illinois. Breckinridge (Wellesley ‘88), the first woman to pass the bar examination in Kentucky, abandoned legal work to take a PhD in political science at the University of Chicago, which she completed in 1901, followed by a law degree in 1904. Part of the circle of social reformers centred around Jane Addams at Hull House, Breckinridge pioneered in the professionalization of social work (as teacher, then as Dean and head of research of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, where social workers were trained). Her methodology was radically empirical; social problems were to be studied in their concrete context, by first-hand observation of the homes and communities of the poor. Working closely with Edith Abbott, she produced numerous monographs on tenement life and the effects of urban poverty on the breakdown of families. New Homes for Old (1921) detailed the dislocations and privations of the immigrant poor in big cities, while giving the social worker the leading role in helping these hapless victims construct a decent life. As early as the 1920s, Breckinridge was emphasizing the need for government responsibility for social welfare programmes, an idea not popular in America until the Depression of the 1930s. In 1927 she helped found the Social Service Review which she edited for the rest of her life.

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • B. Berch
    • 1
  1. 1.