(Amy) Gordon Hamilton (1892 – 1967): Social Work Educator, Relief Administrator, Author
by John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Introduction: Amy Gordon Hamilton was born Dec 26, 1892, in Tenafly, NJ, the youngest child of George Hamilton and Bertha (Torrance) Hamilton. Her father was a Scottish immigrant who became a wealthy importer. Her mother Bertha Torrance immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Canada in the 1870s and became a Christian Scientist and associate of Mary Baker Eddy. The family had four children, two daughters and two sons. All of the children were “home schooled.” Gordon Hamilton’s mother discouraged the children from seeking higher education and influenced her daughters not to marry. Gordon Hamilton experienced chronic respiratory illness as a young woman and was in poor health throughout her entire career.
Early Career: In 1911, at the age of nineteen, Hamilton asked for and received permission from her parents to attend college. Receiving their approval she enrolled in Bryn Mawr, with the goal of becoming a journalist. In her studies, she majored in English and Greek and graduated in 1914. Soon after graduating, Gordon Hamilton started working for the American Red Cross (ARC). Seriously troubled by her poor health, in 1917 she moved to Colorado Springs, CO and worked for the American Red Cross Home Service until 1920.
In 1920, Hamilton resigned and became a “visitor’ in the Lowell District of the Charity Organization Society in New York City, where Anna Kempshall was the director. Hamilton had been recommended to Miss Kempshall by Mary Richmond, then the Director of the Charity Organization Society Department of the Russell Sage Foundation and author of Social Diagnosis (1917). Miss Richmond had met Gordon Hamilton while she was working in the Red Cross in Colorado and early recognized her potential ability. Unfortunately, in a short time Hamilton’s poor health caused her to leave casework services in 1921 and accept a position as research secretary for the COS. When, a few years later, Hamilton seriously considered leaving the field to enter journalism, her supervisor and friend Anna Kempshall persuaded Porter Lee, then Director of the New York School of Social Work, to take her on his staff as an instructor in casework. In 1923, Hamilton left the COS and accepted a faculty appointment at the New York School of Social Work (NYSSW) a relationship she maintained until she retired in 1957. (Editor’s Note: NYSSW later was named Columbia University School of Social Work)
Practice Career: While teaching at NYSSW, Hamilton also sought social work practice opportunities in local and national agencies. She became associate director of social service and adviser on research at Presbyterian Hospital in NYC (1925–32). From this experience came her first book: Medical School Terminology (1927). During the Great Depression, Hamilton worked with federal relief agencies and helped establish the 1st Federal Emergency Relief Administration training program. For the years 1935 and 1936, Hamilton took a leave of absence from NYSSW in order to serve as social services director of the New York State Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. After World War II, Hamilton became involved in international social welfare. She worked with the Church World Services and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration from 1944 until 1952. She also worked as a research consultant at the Jewish Board of Guardians, in New York City from 1947-1950.
Educator and Author: Gordon Hamilton grew to be a teacher and a writer of great renown. She was inspirational in the classroom, drawing upon a classical education as well as a sound practice background. She had clear ideas and strong beliefs about the direction and quality of social work education. This led her and other faculty to the development of the doctoral program in social work education.
She was an outstanding contributor to social work literature. Her style of writing reflected a facility for language as well as clarity of thought. Her most important work was The Theory and Practice of Social Case Work whose first edition was published in 1940. This edition represented the first full effort since Mary Richmond’s Social Diagnosis to define and examine the process of social casework. This book and its later edition (1951) remained basic texts in social work education over many years.
As the outgrowth of her work with the Jewish Board of Guardians she published Psychotherapy in Child Guidance (1947). Although this book was sympathetic to psychoanalytic theory she made a strong distinction between psychoanalysis which she believed was outside the field of social work and psychotherapy. In the 1951 edition of Therapy and Practice of Social Casework she clearly integrated psychoanalytic theory while retaining its foundation in the traditional concrete services approach to casework.
Throughout her academic career she coupled practice-related activities with her writings. As a result her written work showed a constant evolution of her thinking. It can be said that “person-situation” and “knowledge-values” were the two foci of her theory of practice in casework. She believed that the integration of scientific knowledge and social values were the basics of practice. Additional publications included: “Principles of Social Case Recording,” published in 1946; and “Psychotherapy In Guild Guidance,” 1947. She was a frequent contributor to various professional journals.
Hamilton was a member of the National Association of Social Workers, the National Conference on Social Welfare, Family Welfare Association of America, and of the Council Social Work Education. She was a former president of the American Association of Social Workers.
In 1953, Gordon Hamilton received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from. Smith College, The University of British Columbia honored her with a Doctor of Laws degree in 1955.
Hamilton served as Associate Dean to the New York School of Social Work between 1952-1955. She retired entirely in 1957 as a result of her continuing poor health. At that time she was the first editor of the new “Social Work” journal published by the National Association of Social Workers. Gordon Hamilton died Mar 10, 1967, in British Columbia, Canada.
Below is a tribute to Gordon Hamilton written by her long-time friend and companion, Anna Kempshall on the occasion of her retirement.
Gordon Hamilton: Some Intimate Glimpses
I first met Gordon Hamilton many years ago when she was sent as a “visitor’ to the Lowell District of the Charity Organization Society, of which I was in charge. She had been recommended by Mary Richmond whom she had met while working in the Red Cross in Colorado. Miss Richmond early recognized her potential ability, and Miss Richmond’s warm friendship for me was enhanced by her respect and admiration for Gordon. We both shared many happy visits with her, especially in her later years.
I was warned by our then Superintendant that Gordon was a difficult person (having sat on the table and removed her hat during her application interview “quite undignified”). She would not have been accepted, I feel sure, had it not been for Miss Richmond. Lowell was, at the time, a training center for students and the Junior League district. Actually, though her dress was variable (a bit sensitive on this subject) she worked long hours and immediately inspired staff, students and volunteers. Even then her presentation of cases both to committees and staff was notable.
It was not long before I, too, recognized in Gordon a person of great charm, with a broad cultural background, a creative mind, and a love of people. As she has said so often, one cannot be a good social worker, no matter how many degrees, unless one really loves people. And what was all too rare for a social worker, she also had a flair for writing, which brought to life the stereotyped interviews of that period. When, a few years later, she seriously considered leaving the field to enter journalism, I persuaded Porter Lee, then Director of the New York School of Social Work, to take her on his staff as an instructor in casework. This, I feel, was my greatest contribution to the field of social work (though had I not deflected her she, no doubt, by now could have endowed the School!).
Her professional colleagues will be just as much aware as her friends of the many characteristics which are as much a part of her as to be her — her tolerance, generosity of herself and all she possesses, her integrity, courage, humor, humility and, above all, her human kindness and understanding. After I had written my first evaluation for central office of Gordon as a practitioner, I was asked if she “had no faults.” While the perfect person does not exist, I have never known anyone with the combination of qualities she has. Her loyalty to her family, friends and profession needs no comment. Her maid of 35 years asks me please to say for her “what a lovely person she is to be around, always so fair and square,” and without her she would be quite lost.
While she is the most widely read person I know, she has an inordinate passion for detective stories, and if there is a free moment will be listening to the New World Symphony or the King and I, or watching Ed Sullivan on television. Those who know her less well will not know that in a flick of an eyelash and without a cookbook, she can produce a most exotic dish, even though more often than not the pan is irreparably burned. And if she visits you, do not be surprised if she leaves behind nothing so plebian as a pair of overshoes, but rather a hat, or dress, or, scarf. Since she is an ardent supporter of Freud, let’s accept his interpretation! Alas, I once, just in the nick of time, reclaimed her pocketbook containing her precious passport on a trip from Trieste to Ragussa. If she has her hat on backwards, or no belt, pay it no mind, since her thoughts are, for the moment, on higher things! With a bright light, propped up in bed, her glasses on, a string of pearls around her neck, a book precariously posed, her bare feet out like Amy Lowell’s, she will be sound asleep.
She is always the life of the party. On the spur of the moment she will make up a doggerel, think up the appropriate rough story to set things in motion, or keep a conference from collapsing when the main speaker has been detained, with an impromptu and rousing speech to all the “Lord Mayors.” She is just as much at ease on the floor playing games with children as in a conference contributing to the formulation of some profound principle. Her bridge is perhaps a little more conversational than scientific, but full of fun nevertheless.
When she was in college she was an occasional guest at the White House, and after graduation spent a year in London with a lifelong friend, the daughter of Walter Hines Page, our Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Because of her Scottish father her presentation was set for the court drawing room at Holyrood, but two days before this event World War I was declared. This cataclysm, she has often told me, precipitated her into war work and, subsequently, social work.
Gordon is the youngest of four children, brought up in an old-fashioned, “well-connected” (as the British say) household in the country, in which neither a career nor education was thought suitable for girls. She did not go to school until she was nearly twelve, being taught haphazardly at home. Both she and her family were equally astonished, no doubt, a few years later to find her taking examinations for Bryn Mawr — being coached for entrance in the only science her mother would permit. She can still tell the depth of the sea off the Ladrone Islands or the nature and variety of glacial moraines.
The house was always full of friends and relatives. From an outstanding athletic family, her father, at the age of 84, was still playing tennis, and an uncle, now 87, and recently written up in the New Yorker, paddled a canoe last summer down the Hudson from Albany to New York. As a small child he had taught her to jump on his shoulders. So don’t be surprised if in another twenty years or so you hear that Gordon has flown the space ship to Mars!
She was proficient in many sports. Riding was her greatest pleasure, but I believe she was the unbeaten tennis champion and a member of the varsity basketball and hockey teams at Bryn Mawr. There are not many mountains in Europe which she has not climbed in her hey–day — a fantastic ten-day walking trip through the Spanish Pyrennes to the perilous Dolomites. Her vacations were varied — often ranches in the West, or driving absent-mindedly that breathtaking trek from Mexico City to Acapulco. The last few years she has spent her summers in Victoria, where she has developed a hobby for gardening. What next, I wonder? I might hope typewriting, since her devoted secretary is the only one who can read her writing! While she looks forward to a peaceful retirement, I have no doubt that she will be busier than ever. Her contribution to social work through her teaching and writing will live on and she will be remembered as the Dean of modern social work, as Mary Richmond was in her day.
— Anna Kempshall, Director of Family Service, Community Service Society of New York City
This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.
Sources: The article by Anna Kempshall was published in the NYSSW Alumni Association Newsletter, June 1957. A copy of the document was in a scrapbook the family of Anna Kempshall donated to the Social Welfare History Project.
NASW Social Work Pioneers, (Amy) Gordon Hamilton: https://www.naswfoundation.org/Our-Work/NASW-Social-Workers-Pioneers/NASW-Social-Workers-Pioneers-Listing.aspx?id=627
Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America, Walter I. Trattner, Editor, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2015). (Amy) Gordon Hamilton (1892 – 1967): Social work educator, relief administrator, author. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/hamilton-amy-gordon-1892-1967/