Virginia Pollard Robinson (1883-1977)
Professor of Social Work and Associate Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and Co-Founder of the Functional School of Social Work
By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Introduction: Virginia Robinson (September 6, 1883 – June 28, 1977) was an early proponent of professionalization who championed higher standards, conceptualized approaches and content for professionally controlled graduate work, and practiced professional social work education from her positions at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and as an officer of the Association of Schools of Professional Social Work. Along with her colleague and life partner, Jesse Taft, Robinson was a proponent of the work of Otto Rank, and established the theoretical framework of “functional casework” that characterized the curriculum at the school for many years. Her extensive writings on supervision and casework process were influential and widely used texts.
Professional Career: Virginia Pollard Robinson joined the staff of the Philadelphia Training School for Social Work in 1918 (an earlier name for the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work). From 1918 until her retirement in 1952 Miss Robinson held successively positions as Associate Director, Associate Dean, Assistant Director and Vice Dean. Her distinguished work as teacher, administrator, writer and student of social work processes was largely responsible for the School’s unique development, both in size and in distinctive contribution to social work and social work education.
To a degree rare in social work education her view of her tasks was marked by a sustained interest in and respect for the field of social work practice, while at the same time she maintained a scholarly perspective upon the field as a rich source for study, learning and teaching. Even more significantly for the School, the nature of Robinson’s interest in social work as related to professional education suggested methods of interchange and patterns of relationship between classroom and field work which have proven steadily fruitful through the years and remain widely recognized as effective in preparing the student both in comprehension of his task and in be- ginning competence in practice.
Robinson’s book “Supervision in Social Casework“ was published in 1936. This definitive book lifted supervision in social work out of its neglected position as a casually undertaken sideline of casework, and established it as an area of teaching and learning. Thus recognized, supervision has since been practiced in social work with increasing skill and usefulness to social agencies. Heightened effectiveness of their services has ensued as well as clearer definition of their spheres of usefulness to community, client and to professional education for social work. In turn, professional education has gained greatly from a collaboration sustained with the social agency able to provide not only skilled supervision for the student’s field work but also communicable definition and function of purpose.
In the winter of 1936, due to Depression Era public service appointments made by the Governor of Pennsylvania, the School of Social Work lost the services of both its Director, Kenneth L. M. Pray, and the Dean of faculty Karl de Schweinitz. The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work elected Virginia P. Robinson to the post of Acting Director in 1936. She had served the School as Associate Director since 1919 and had worked her way through seven years in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a Ph.D. in Sociology in 1931.
She titled her dissertation “A Changing Psychology in Social Case Work” and the University of North Carolina Press immediately published it in book form. It was an extraordinary work, one which caused a sensation in the field of social work education. Bertha C. Reynolds, Associate Director of the Smith College School for Social Work, reviewed it with approval in the June 1931 issue of the Family Service Association journal, The Family:
Some books sink into the pool of oblivion with scarcely a ripple. Some, for a brief time, are like molten matter cast up by an erupting volcano. Some are like earthquakes, felt but not comprehended at the time and producing no one knows what changes. One only knows that after their coming nothing is the same again. “A Changing Psychology in Social Work” bears the mark of such a book.
On the other hand, Frank J. Bruno, a distinguished professor of social work at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, reviewed “A Changing Psychology…” in the January 1933 issue of The American Journal of Sociology. He wrote with evident concern. In his view:
There has always been one school [of thought] which has relied upon differences in personality for the explanation of deviant behavior and another which has emphasized the predominant importance of the social, economic, and political mediums in which development has taken place. Miss Robinson goes nearly to the extreme of the personality hypothesis.…Her statement that psychology and not social science has spoken the last word upon social case work is confirmatory evidence of this allegiance. … The book exhibits the qualities inherent in positive statement of conviction as compared with the attitude of the scholar whose conclusions are tentative and subject to change on the presentation of new evidence. The author seems to have found in the methodology of [Otto] Rank an end to all searchings for method in social interaction. This leads to an uncompromising form of statement, as well as a confidence in the comprehensiveness of the formula which is in marked contrast to the tentative methodologies of most of the contemporary professions.
Virginia Robinson was breaking new ground. Like others who lead a profession in a new direction, she suffered the criticism of many of her peers. Nevertheless, she pressed ahead. She had the courage of her own convictions. She was strengthened by the support of Karl de Schweinitz, Kenneth Pray, and the founder of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, the psychiatrist Frederick H. Allen, M.D. Most of all, she enjoyed the committed backing and intellectual powers of her life partner, Jessie Taft. Taft was the one who had met Otto Rank in 1924, during his first visit to the United States. She had undergone psychoanalysis with him in 1926-27. Taft wrote “The Function of a Mental Hygienist in a Children’s Agency,” which she read at the National Conference of Social Work in 1927. She had published “A Changing Psychology in Child Welfare” in the September 1930 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In 1934, after fifteen years at the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania, she had become a full-time member of the faculty at the Pennsylvania Society of Social Work. In 1936 she had translated and published Rank’s Will Therapy: An Analysis of the Therapeutic Process in Terms of Relationship. Jessie Taft was the person most responsible for developing the “functional school” in social work theory and practice. Virginia Robinson was her partner every step of the way.
Biographical Information: Virginia Pollard Robinson was born September 6, 1883 to Walter Landon and Hallie (Thomas) Robinson in Louisville, Kentucky. She was an outstanding high school student and then enrolled in Bryn Mawr College where she earned both a B.A. (1906), and an M.A. (1907). After leaving Bryn-Mawr she taught high school English in the Louisville area for four years; however, she was not ready to accept teaching high school as a career and enrolled in summer school at the University of Chicago, where she met Jessie Taft who would become her lifelong partner. From 1911 to 1918 Robinson worked at a series of social agencies in the New York City area. Robinson joined the staff of the University of Pennsylvania in 1918. After seventeen years in various assignments, she was appointed Professor of Social Case Work. Until her retirement in 1952 Robinson successively held positions as: Associate Director, Associate Dean, Assistant Director and Vice Dean. Robinson and Jessie Taft both resigned in 1952. Together they had adopted and raised two children, living in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, in a close-knit community of professional women. Jesse Taft died in 1960.
Robinson’s teaching and writing encompassed many fields of practice, but she had a particular interest in child welfare and was an early proponent of therapeutic child placement and adoption. In 1965 she founded the Otto Rank Association and served as president and editor of its journal. Her goal was to foster interest in the exploration and application of Rank’s ideas to diverse areas of endeavor, including art and literature. The Association continued until 1983.
Major Publications: Robinson’s Doctoral dissertation “A Changing Psychology in Social Case Work” was revolutionary in social work. Published in 1930, this book in four printings sold thousands of copies and could have been reprinted a fifth time, but for Dr. Robinson’s request that it go out of print.
“Supervision in Social Casework: A Problem in Professional Education” was published in 1936. This definitive book lifted supervision in social work out of its neglected position as a casually undertaken side-line of casework, and established it as an area of teaching and learning.
“Training for Skill in Social Casework” was published in 1942. This book, one of the School’s series, The Journal of Social Work Process, was edited by Dr.Robinson, her paper of the same title, appearing as its chief article. As the name implies, this piece describes an effective helping process in social casework. At once authoritative and fine grained, the article examines the elements of class room and field work learning which altogether result in the attitude and skill requisite to effective practice in social casework.
In 1949 Dr.Robinson published “The Dynamics of Supervision Under Functional Controls: A Professional Process in Social Casework.” In this second book on supervision she developed further a concept of school-field collaboration for education in social work, high-lighting developments in the field during the thirteen years intervening between this work and the earlier one, and delineating also some of the problems arising from issues sharpened by social work’s clearer self definition.
In retirement, Dr. Robinson authored: “Jessie Taft: Therapist and Social Work Educator (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962).
Robinson died June 28, 1977 at the Pine Run Health Care Center in Doylestown Pennsylvania at the age of 93.
The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work established and awards annually: the Virginia P. Robinson Prize for an outstanding student essay.
Robinson’s papers are archived at Columbia University (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/archival/collections/ldpd_4078374/.)
Betsy Schaefer Vourlekis, Ph.D., Co-Chair, NASW Social Work Pioneers
Nancy R. Miller, University of Pennsylvania Archives
A Centennial History of the School of Social Policy and Practice by Mark Frazier Lloyd, Director of the University Archives and Records Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and published in 2008.
Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in American, Walter I. Trattner, Editor (1986), Greenwood Press, Westport, CT