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Devine, Edward T.

in: People

Edward T. Devine (1867-1948) – Economist, Child Welfare Advocate, Educator, Author and Pioneer Social Worker


Edward T. Devine
Edward T. Devine
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3b22817

Introduction: Edward Thomas Devine was born May 6, 1867 on a farm near Union, Iowa.  His parents were John and Laura (nee Hall).  Devine attended local schools and later enrolled in Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa where he received a bachelor and master of arts degrees in 1887 and 1889.  Also in 1889 he married Hattie Evelyn Scovill with whom he had two children. In 1889, the University of Pennsylvania awarded Devine a Ph.D. in Economics. He Died February 27, 1948.

Career: The young Devine supported himself teaching and lecturing, first in Iowa communities and later in Europe and New York City.  Between 1896 and 1917 he held faculty positions such as a lecturer in economics for the American Society for Extension University Teaching and four years teaching at Oxford and Edinburgh universities.  For two different terms (1904-1907)and 1912-1917) he was the director of the New York School of Philanthropy, that later became the New York School of Social Work in 1919.  During this same period, Devine was professor of social economy at Columbia University.  From 1926-1928, Devine was dean of the Graduate School and professor of social economics at American University in Washington, D.C.

In addition to becoming a respected academic, Devine managed a number of significant administrative responsibilities. In 1896 he was appointed general secretary of the New York Charity Organization Society (COS), a position he held for twenty-one years. Devine also served as the first editor of the professional journal: Survey.  From 1912 to 1921 he served as associate editor of Survey alongside Paul U. Kellogg.

Contributions to Social Work: Edward Thomas Devine brought his extensive background in economics to the social work profession. Devine charged that behind every societal evil lurked an exploitative group. “Housing reform would be easier than it is . . . if there were not strong pecuniary interests at stake,” he asserted. He also predicted that “.. . child labor would come to an end in a twelvemonth if there were no money to be made in the exploitation of child labor.”

Devine believed it was the duty of social work to “seek out and strike effectively at those organized forces of evil, at those particular causes of dependence and intolerable living conditions which are beyond the control of individuals whom they injure and whom they too often destroy.” Toward this end, Devine joined forces with Lillian Wald, a founder of the Henry Street Settlement House in New York, in promoting the idea of a federal bureau that would be concerned with the welfare of children. Devine and Wald first discussed their idea for a Children’s Bureau with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. A bill authorizing such a bureau was introduced and hearings were held. A 1909 White House Conference on Child Welfare also passed a resolution in favor of such a bureau. However, their goal was only achieved six years after it was first proposed when President William Howard Taft signed the law that brought the U.S. Children’s Bureau into being.

For 20 years Devine served as general secretary of the New York Charity Organization Society and expanded the Society’s in-house magazine Charities into the leading social work journal of its day, Survey. Devine also helped found, in 1904, the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis and the National Child Labor Committee. Devine was among the earliest advocates of better treatment for tuberculosis patients and for an end to the ostracism of those with venereal disease.  He was also a special representative of the American Red Cross in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and was in charge of flood relief in Dayton, Ohio, in 1913. During World War I, Devine led American Red Cross relief work in France.

Devine also is believed to have been the first to use the term “case work.” In a paper he presented after becoming secretary of the Charity Organization Society of New York in 1897. He said, “…good case work involves much thankless labor.”

One of Devine’s greatest contributions to social work evolved from his experiences with the COS. As the movement grew, an insufficient number of volunteers made it necessary for COS agencies to employ “agents,” trained staff members who were the predecessors of professional social workers. the usual pattern was that COS volunteers employed the technique of “friendly visiting” in homes of the poor to establish helping relationships and investigate the circumstances of families in need. COS leaders were typically middle-and upper-class men and women. COS agencies did not usually give money to the poor; rather they advocated a more systematic and “scientific” approach to charity, coordinating various charitable resources and keeping records of those who had received charity in an effort to prevent cheating and duplication. The casework method, later used by the social work profession, is rooted in the philosophies and techniques of COS. Pioneer COS leaders, like Mary Richmond of the Boston COS and Edward T. Devine of the New York COS led the movement to formally “train” workers, which eventually gave rise to the professionalization of social work in the early twentieth century.

Sources: NASW News, April 1998

Gale Encyclopedia of US History: Charity Organization Societies

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America: Walter I Trattner, Editor (Greenwood Press, Inc., Westport, CT. 1986) p. 228

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Edward T. Devine (1867-1948) – Economist, child welfare advocate, educator, author and pioneer social worker.  Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from