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Dunham, Arthur

in: People

Arthur Dunham (1893-1980) – Community Organizer, Social Welfare Administrator, Pacifist and Federal Prisoner During WW I


Introduction: Arthur Dunham (1893-1980) was a social welfare administrator, pioneer community organizer, and educator. He worked in a number of neighborhood centers and social work agencies in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Newton, MA; served on the staff of the Public Charities Association in Pennsylvania, and administered public relief in Pennsylvania and New York during the Depression. From 1935 to 1963 he conceptualized and taught community organization practice in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan.

Early Life and Career: Arthur Dunham was born August 3, 1893, the only child  of William Armstrong Dunham and Lottie Mae (nee Rickart) Dunham who were devout Presbyterians.  Raised in St. Louis, he attended Washington University.  After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1914, he obtained a scholarship to study political science at the University of Illinois; however, after a year he was forced to leave because of a shortage of funds.  The work he found after leaving school was in a church in St. Louis where his duties brought him in to contact with slums and children of the area for whom he provided recreation.

In September, 1917 he became engaged to Esther Francis Schneider who was a religious pacifist.  He was very impressed by her pacifism and converted to membership in the Society of Friends.  During World War I he was drafted; however, he declared himself a conscientious objector (CO) and refused to serve in the military.  For this, he was court martialed, found guilty, and on November 12, 1918 sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in the federal penitentiary at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

The sentence was overturned on January 27, 1919. After being released from prison, Dunham joined his fiance in Philadelphia, where she had been working as a social worker. They were married on May 31, 1919. Later they would adopt two children, Ruth and Richard. In Philadelphia through his wife’s connections and with her encouragement, Dunham accepted a job as executive secretary of the Social Service Exchange. In 1923 he moved to Newton, Massachusetts, where he became secretary of that city’s Council of Social Agencies. There he organized studies of public health, recreation, and school social work in the area, and worked with a citizens’ group on organizing a community chest agency.  Two years later he went back to Philadelphia as secretary of the family and children’s division of the Philadelphia Public Charities Commission, a position he held until 1935.  Among the issues he worked on were problems of mothers’ assistance, legislative campaigns to increase appropriations, marriage law reform, and a ten-year plan for child welfare in Pennsylvania. When the Depression hit, however, his services frequently were lent to other agencies, including the state’s emergency relief agency and the Family Service Association of America headquartered in New York City, where he studied the impact of public relief on families.

In 1935, he was invited to join the faculty of what would eventually become the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan. In his years at the University of Michigan, where he served as acting director of the school from 1949 to 1951, he taught courses in community organization, social welfare administration, and community development,  a subject in which he developed an intense interest, one which continued for the rest of his life. He also held visiting appointments at many other universities and accepted a number of special assignments outside the university, including service as a member of the research staff for the Michigan Welfare Relief Study Commission (1936-1937) and as a member (1931-1960)  and chairman (1954-1960)  of the Advisory Committee to the Social Work Year book. Although he retired from the University of Michigan in 1963, he continued to write and teach as a visiting professor in a number of other institutions at home and abroad.

Dunham  helped found the Association for the Study of Community Organization in 1947 and was its first president.

Arthur Dunham’s principal contributions to social welfare were in the areas of community organization and community development practice, which were inextricably linked with his religious convictions, his exposure to the institutional church, and especially his relationship with his wife. He felt strongly that settling conflict by violent means produced more negative consequences than positive

Ed. Note: In 1948, Arthur Dunham gave a presentation entitled “What Is the Job of a Community Organizer“  at the National Conference  on Social Welfare Link directly or view this paper on the tab SOCIAL WORK under the tab PROGRAMS.

Among his most significant publications are Community Welfare Organization: Principles and Practice (1958); Community Organization in Action: Basic Literature and Critical Comments, with Ernest  B. Harper (1959); and Trends in Community Organization, with Monna Heath (1963). The New Community Organization (1970); and with Lee J. Carry, he edited Community Development: A Select Bibliography (1973), and with Charlotte Nusberg and Sujata Basu Sengupta he wrote Toward Planning for the Aging in Local Communities:  An International  Perspective (1978).

For more information:

Bently Historical Library, University of Michigan:

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America, Walter I Trattner,Editor, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. (1986)  p. 257

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Arthur Dunham (1893-1980) – Community organizer, social welfare administrator, pacifist and federal prisoner during WWI. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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