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Lathrop, Julia Clifford

Julia Clifford Lathrop (1858-1932):  First Chief of the Children’s Bureau
and Advocate for Enactment of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921

January 21, 2011


Julia C. Lathrop
Julia C. Lathrop
Photo: Social Security Administration History Archives

Julia Lathrop was an advocate for the mentally ill, immigrants, equal rights for women, social reform, and child welfare. She was born in Rockford, Illinois on June 29, 1858, and her father William Lathrop was a successful lawyer and politician who helped establish the Republican Party. He served in the state legislature and was elected to Congress in 1876. He was reform-minded and supported civil service legislation, woman suffrage, and various social welfare issues. Julia’s mother, Sarah Adeline (née Potter), was an active abolitionist and suffragette, as well as an enthusiastic advocate for the creation and maintenance of art and cultural organizations in the community. Julia was the oldest of five children.

From 1876-1877, Julia attended the Rockford Female Seminary. After one year she transferred to Vassar College, graduating in 1880. Julia returned home to Rockford, and became her father’s personal secretary and law assistant. During this time, she became interested in the treatment of the mentally ill, women’s rights, civil service, and social reform. Her life changed dramatically when, in the winter of 1888-1889, Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams traveled to Rockford Seminary, their alma mater, to promote Hull House settlement in Chicago to the students and the community. Inspired by their presentation, Lathrop, at the age of 32, joined the residents of Hull-House in 1890.

Julia Lathrop quickly became involved in Hull-House activities including being a volunteer visitor for the Cook County Charities. This position as an agent visitor gave Lathrop the opportunity to observe the desperate circumstances of the average American as the country became increasingly industrial and urban. Many of her findings were published two years later in Hull-House Maps and Papers. Her work came to the attention of reform governor John P. Altegeld, and thus she became the first resident of Hull-House to receive a state position to the Illinois Board of Charities. In her work with the board, Lathrop visited many facilities in and around Chicago, that collectively housed people who were mentally ill, aged, sick, or disabled. She advocated that separate facilities should be established that would attend to these specific groups. In her various roles, Lathrop witnessed official indifference to human needs and developed a lasting conviction about the importance of competent and honest public officials.

When the Childrens Bureau was formally created in 1912, President William Howard Taft appointed Lathrop as Chief, the first woman bureau chief in the federal government. She brought to the position her experiences and contacts from 22 years as a resident of Hull-House. As chief of the Children’s Bureau, Lathrop made issues like child labor laws and juvenile delinquency ones of extreme importance. During its first two years of existence, the bureau produced and distributed free pamphlets on the health needs of pregnant women and the care of infants. In addition, during her tenure as chief, the Children’s Bureau’s budget increased tenfold and the effort to reduce the nation’s high infant mortality rate resulted in the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act. By 1921, Lathrop was was considered one of the most popular and well-known federal bureaucrats. She resigned from the position in 1922, ill with a hyperthyroid condition, and convinced President Warren G. Harding to appoint Grace Abbott as her successor. Following her resignation, she returned to Rockford, IL.

In her retirement, Lathrop became president of the Illinois League of Women Voters. She also joined as a charter member of the National Committee of Mental Illness, trying to dispel the myth of mental illness as a sign of moral defect. Through the efforts of Lathrop and others, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921 was realized. It was the first federally funded social welfare measure in the United States. Sponsored by Texas Senator Morris Sheppard and Iowa Congressman Horace Towner, the law allowed the distribution of federal matching grants to the states for prenatal and child health clinics, information on nutrition and hygiene, midwife training, and visiting nurses for pregnant women and new mothers. It did not provide any financial aid or medical care. Until her death in 1932, Julia Lathrop also fought against the capital punishment of juveniles. Until legislation was created, juveniles were tried in the same courts and under the same laws as adults. Lathrop, with the help of her associates, the Chicago Woman’s Club, and the Chicago Bar Association, secured legislation for the creation of the first juvenile court system in the country. Additionally, she helped create a psychiatric clinic to help rehabilitate young offenders and raised money to create salaries for the first probation officers.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.


Social Security History

Vassar Encyclopedia

Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society, Webster University

Peabody, H. Learning to Give.

Hull-House Maps and Papers

Addams, Jane. My friend, Julia Lathrop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Magill, F. N. (1995). Julia C. Lathrop. Great lives from history: American women series (pp. 1081-1085) Salem Press.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Julia Clifford Lathrop (1858-1932): First chief of the Children’s Bureau and advocate for enactment of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from



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