Skip to main content

Gilman, Daniel Coit

Daniel Coit Gilman: An Unrecognized Social Work Pioneer

by Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland School of Social Work


Daniel Coit Gilman is most known for his contributions to American higher education. This paper presents information which shows that he developed practice principles that are still valid, opened Johns Hopkins University to a wide range of social welfare education and activities, and educated several of the most important founders of professional social work.

Daniel Coit Gilman
Daniel Coit Gilman
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3b11117

His educational philosophy is related to understanding his social welfare initiatives. Gilman was 44 when he was appointed president. The trustees gave him freedom and did not interfere in running the school. He set the standards. The formal installation as president did not occur until 1876 because he spent a year consulting leading academics and deciding on an educational model. This was to be the first graduate research university in the country to grant the Ph.D. He picked the brightest and most promising with an unerring eye. Neither age nor religion nor race mattered (Flexner, 1940).

The emphasis on research gave Hopkins an undeserved reputation for neglecting teaching. In fact, research and teaching were strongly emphasized since Gilman believed no one could be a good teacher unless they were also a scholar. This was transformative for American higher education. It was criticized by establishment educators. But, within a few years “Baltimore was … a Mecca to young scholars and scientists; the University was rapidly making history (Flexner, 1946, p. 82).”

The lack of ecclesiastical requirements for faculty was revolutionary. Up to that time schools such as Yale and Harvard were fairly weak colleges dominated by denominational faculty who concentrated on traditional Latin, Greek and theology courses. At Hopkins all subjects were to be developed. This included the emerging science of biology whose Darwinian proponents were shaking the academic and theological world. Gilman invited the eminent English zoologist and Darwinian Thomas Henry Huxley to give his inaugural speech. The event was criticized because there was nothing about the religious aspects of education and no prayer or benediction. Gilman had made his point.

Despite his radical independence he was a realist and knew the value of good public relations with the community. The public wanted undergraduates accepted. He did this but his surrender wasn’t complete. For the first twenty years graduate students outnumbered undergraduates by more than two to one. Fabian Franklin, a biographer, said, “The great achievement with which the name of President Gilman will always chiefly be associated is having naturalized in America the idea of a true university (Franklin, 1910, p. 183).”

He was not a great or prolific scholar but rather was a genius educational planner and administrator. He was flexible, exact, precise, organized, a prodigious worker, and a humanitarian who always held himself and others to the highest standards. When he took over setting up the hospital because no one else could get it organized he went to New York to see how a first class hotel handled linens and towels since he thought clean linen was essential for patient comfort. He instituted Sunday visiting so working people wouldn’t miss a day’s pay during the week and mail was delivered on Sunday since this was a lonely day. No detail was too small to escape his attention.

His social welfare philosophy was developing before he came to Hopkins. In 1870 he gave a speech in New Haven at the opening of an industrial school. It was on the history of charitable and penal institutions. It ended with three principles to be followed by those engaged in charitable and philanthropic work:

“… First, that all who are personally concerned in such work should make it a duty to keep thoroughly informed in respect to what is doing elsewhere, in order to know what to avoid and what to abandon, and what to test and adopt; second that women should be employed in charitable undertakings and trained especially for such work, so that they should be ready for more responsible positions in various institutions; and that in all charitable and reformatory institutions there should be full publicity as to income and expenditure and that the entire management should be open to public inspection…” (Franklin, 1910, p. 89).

In 1870 this was a progressive, even radical statement. Welfare work requires that one knows what is going on, that women doing this should be well trained and that agencies should operate with transparency.

His comment about the role of women is worth a digression. On the one hand it was a sign that he valued womens ability to have responsible jobs in social welfare. At that time most women who worked outside the home had little schooling and were domestics or factory workers. The idea of middle class women working was not widely accepted, especially if they were or wanted to get married. So he was making a little space. One the other hand it cast a restrictive role for women. Social welfare was to be woman’s work.

He later opposed admitting women to Hopkins and the Medical School. This changed because of an extraordinary Baltimorean named Mary Elizabeth Garrett. She was independently wealthy, perhaps the richest woman in the country. She had made an attempt to get women undergraduates admitted to Hopkins by offering money but had been turned down. A few women were admitted to the graduate school but under restrictive conditions. For example Christine Ladd who graduated Vassar in 1869 was admitted to study philosophy (anonymous, 1926). She finished with great distinction and took a job in philosophy at Columbia University. Hopkins invited her back in 1904 to give a distinguished lecture; she was introduced by her married name, Mrs. Franklin. In 1926 when Hopkins celebrated the 50th anniversary of Gilman’s inaugural she was awarded the Ph. D.

To continue with Garrett: When the Hopkins medical school was about to open the University ran into financial trouble. Garrett and her “Friday Evening” social group formed a Women’s Medical School Fund Committee and set out to raise $100,000. When this and other fund raising was not enough Garrett and her group offered to complete the $500,000 needed to get it under way if women would be admitted to the medical school under the same conditions as men. Garrett added additional stipulations most of which were accepted after some intense negotiation. These were that the medical school be a graduate school, that a bachelor’s degree be required for admission, and that there be knowledge of basic pre-medical courses. Under pressure of financial need he accepted admitting women. While Gilman accepted the additional criteria because they fit in with his values he made clear that it was the University that determined educational standards and would not be dictated to by outsiders. The medical school’s opening in October of 1893 set a new standard for American medical education and practice.

One early student was Gertrude Stein. She dropped out in the middle of her final year because she didn’t like working with patients. She liked and was much better at research and published a couple of respectable experimental studies. She went to Paris to write and met Alice B. Toklas who became her lifetime companion. In between Alice’s “funny brownies” she established a respectable reputation as a writer and hosted a famous expatriate avant-garde artistic salon.

The 1870 charity principles were expanded on in an 1893 Conference overview paper that reported on the sixth section of the International Conference of Charities, Corrections and Philanthropy, which he chaired. It said in part: (Gilman, 1894 #818, pp. viii-vi)

“…First, the nature and influence of charitable works and the comparative value of different modes of procedure, are as worthy of exact study, as the facts and laws of political economy.… Organized charity proceeds upon the assumption of the unity of human nature, so that although laws, religions, traditions and usages differ in different lands, like causes everywhere tend to produce the like effects.… As it makes these studies, charity organization is not at all alarmed if it is called in a sneering tone ‘scientific,’ for history is full of examples of the taunts that have been thrown since the beginning of science.…In social as in bodily ailments the art of healing must be based upon ascertained facts and on accumulated experience.”

“Secondly. It is another principle of charity organization that there shall be no needless expenditure of force, no dissipation of energy. Four agencies, which are at work in almost every community — civil, ecclesiastical, associated and individual beneficence—must be brought into such harmonious relations, that there will be no overlapping or duplication of charitable effort…There are two dangers ever hovering over a charitable community, — that the expenses of administration will be disproportionate to the good accomplished; and that for the lack of adjustment and co-operation, the recipient of aid will be so amply supplied that he becomes permanently dependent or pauperized….Cooperation in charity is of prime importance.

“Thirdly, Charity to be really and permanently efficacious must always (except in emergencies…) be guided by personal acquaintance with the wants that are to be relieved. Indiscriminate almsgiving at the door or on the street; the free bestowal of food ‘no questions being asked’; spasmodic liberality one day and crisp parsimony the next; the avoidance of particular inquiries in respect to the conditions of those who seek assistance, may satisfy the conscience of a tender-hearted person, but his alms will probably aggravate in his beneficiaries the distresses that ought to be healed.

“Fourthly. The best of all charities is not that which gives something for nothing; but that which gives something in return for industry, labor, economy, self-sacrifice and self-help. Work, for the strong and healthy, is better far than a dole. Useful labor, fairly requited, uplifts the needy man by perpetuating the consciousness that he does not belong to an impoverished class; bounties carelessly bestowed, without any return, tend to place the recipient in the ranks of the pauper. This principle does not prevent generous treatment of those who are dependent… In short, Education, Registration, Co-operation, Visitation, and the Provision of Employment, are the five-fold agencies upon which the leaders in charities are united.”

At a time when there was still question about whether giving services could be a professional endeavor he said that it is a practice based on science, facts and accumulated wisdom and those who doubted this should be disregarded. While cultural differences are important for essential needs a common human nature means that “like causes produce like outcomes.” Agency efficiency, coordination, and cooperation are essential. Good practice means you know who you are helping and deal with important issues directly. Employment is key and those who are helped could give back if they were helped to finds jobs that paid them fairly. These are practice standards that remain to be achieved.

Gilman emphasized the university’s role in serving the community. Faculty was encouraged to engage in public service. He was an activist but did not engage in party politics. Instead he developed relationships with important institutions and governmental bodies. Reforms were pushed in Baltimore’s sanitation and water purification. Public schools in Baltimore were weak so teachers were given classes at the University. A wide variety of philanthropic and charitable activities were undertaken. He wanted to have the people of Baltimore see the University as useful and public-spirited and he did all he could to have the university play a role in community social welfare. He believed that “… intelligent and scientific method in dealing with the unfortunate and the vicious is an element in any scheme for social betterment.…the university is one of the strongest agencies for raising the standards of the people of a community in dealing with their fellow men.” (Franklin, 1910 #817, p. 275).”

He seemed never to turn down a request to help in the community. And he brought the same quality of effort to everything he undertook. When he was appointed to the Baltimore City School Board, H.L. Mencken wrote, “The general belief was that he was too busy to give the public schools any serious attention and that his appointment was hardly more than an effort to augment the dignity of the administration. At the very first meeting he attended he ‘horned’ into the minutest details of the Board’s work and within a couple of weeks he was the real boss of the whole system.…He was the sort of man who couldn’t leave anything to chance. Everything that came under his purview had to be arranged precisely and he never forgot a detail.” (Flexner, 1946, p. 13). He found time to do things that ranged from being a trustee of the Peabody Institute and the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a presidential appointee on the Venezuela Boundary Commission, president of the National Civil Service Reform League, and helping to start the Nation magazine.

In 1881 he called several prominent people to his office and founded one of the earliest Charity Organization Societies in America served as president from 1891-1901. This select group included Eugene Levering and John Glenn. Levering built the Hall named after him in conjunction with the YMCA. He and Glenn were heavily involved in Baltimore welfare activities. It is a measure of Gilman that he could recruit powerful people and creates conditions where they worked cooperatively without a hint of jealousy.

The YMCA and its membership provided a base for University social welfare endeavors. “It was part of the plan of the Association to encourage its members … to take part in the religious and social work going on in the City. A number of Hopkins men shared in the welfare work of Lawrence House at 816 West Lombard St (French, 1946m p. 327).” Founded in 1893 this was Baltimore’s first settlement house. Students were placed through Levering Hall to work with people who lived in the area’s crowded and poor housing. The big industries were the Baltimore and Ohio repair shops and Hayward’s Iron Foundry. The population was mainly Irish and German but Poles, Italians, and Jews were moving in. Students produced reports such as, “A study of 50 Italian Families Living Near Lexington Market” and “A Study in Standards of Living.”

The University was opened to the Charity Organization Society and other bodies devoted to social improvement, and lectures on charity work were given in the Department of Economics of the University (Franklin, 1910, p. 275). The division of History, Political Economy, and Political Science concentrated on applying social science methods to social problems. Between 1884 and 1896 Herbert Baxter Adams, James Bryce, Richard Ely, Albert Shaw, and Woodrow Wilson developed a program in local government public administration. Ely and Baxter, in particular, had doctoral students work on applied social problems. Ely avoided political parties while advocating for tax reform, government ownership of necessary monopolies, and social reform.

Based on his membership in the City Charter Commission Gilman took recommendations from the special Commission on Charities and got them into the City Charter. Franklin says, “The consequence was a fundamental change in the system, or lack of system, which had previously existed. Instead of almost random contributions to charitable institutions privately managed, city appropriations to these agencies were required to be made on the basis of services actually rendered and duly certified, and proper inspection of all institutions receiving subventions from the city was required (Franklin, 1910, p. 276).”  What Gilman inspired extended across the nation. Ely’s later career is one example in 1892 he was the first economist hired at the University of Wisconsin. He brought one of his Hopkins students John R. Commons to Wisconsin. While Commons did not finish at Hopkins when in Baltimore he did research and worked with people. Ely had him visit savings and loan associations and help a tubercular veteran get a needed pension. Later under Commons the Wisconsin department became a foremost center for labor economics. The students and faculty associated with the department were a fountainhead for the Progressive Movement.

The Social Security Act was largely developed within the department. Commons’ students Edwin E. Witte and Arthur J. Altmeyer were closely tied to the bill and its implementation. Witte helped pass the bill in Congress and Altmeyer became chairman of the Social Security Board. Wilbur J. Cohen was a student in this department. On graduation he went to Washington to work for Witte on the Social Security Act. After a distinguished government career, among other things being secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, his subsequent appointment at the University of Michigan School of Social Work was as a professor of public administration. Cohen was not a social worker but the profession claims him.

Gilman and his collaborators brought into the COS such future social welfare notables as Amos G. Warner, Jeffrey Brackett, and Mary Richmond. They helped create professional social work in America. Warner and Brackett were students of Ely who got their Ph.D.s in history. Warner gave the first lectures on welfare and was the first executive secretary of the Baltimore COS, serving from 1887-1889. This was the first college educated man to work in the COS. He went from there to chair the economics department at the University of Nebraska. In 1891 President William Henry Harrison asked Warner to become the first Superintendent of Charities for the District of Columbia. Warner left two years later to become professor of economics and social science at Stanford University. His masterwork was American Charities. Brackett was an active volunteer in the COS. He became head of the Boston School for Training Social Workers that later became the Simmons College School of Social Work. Another student, John M. Glenn became the first director of the Russell Sage Foundation. In 1896-1897 Philip A. Ayres, another student gave a course on the problems of the poor in cities. In the Baltimore COS he headed its executive committee and was president of the Baltimore City Department of Charities and Corrections. He went on to head the Associated Charities in Cincinnati and Chicago. He then went to New York as assistant Secretary of the New York Charity Organization Society and established a COS summer School in 1898. This became the New York School of Social Work and Ayres was its first head.

The last person in this pantheon is Mary Richmond. She is so well known that less space will be devoted to her. Briefly, in 1889 she went to work for the Baltimore COS as assistant treasurer. In 1891 she became the General Secretary and stayed until 1899. To her we owe a great part of the social in social work for she was concerned with the conditions that led an individual to be poor, not his emotional state.

Summary and Conclusion

The social work practice principles Gilman lay down, with minor modifications and updating language, are still valid today. Then as now the problem was not principles but implementation. Within the profession there is a tendency to engage in continuous revision and redefinitions without anything really changing. Perhaps what is necessary is to remember and hold on to the core values and standards that Gilman so clearly identified. Hopkins supplied a significant share of the professions early practice and educational leadership.

While the Hopkins professors and students worked on real issues and pushed for change, often against resistance, they did not engage in activities connected to political parties. They stuck to the issues. The structure that Gilman set up enabled university professors and students to play an activist role in social reform without bringing a storm down on the university. This same quality enabled him to involve leading Baltimore figures in the University’s welfare activities.

And last but not least, while he was a somewhat unenthusiastic about it, he was a pioneer in women’s education. There is a footnote to this too. Elisabeth Gilman, his youngest daughter, was a socialist and a social activist (Anonymous, 1950). She ran unsuccessfully for several political offices, was active in the Progressive Party, supported labor, and helped found the Maryland ACLU.

Gilman was no utopian. He pushed no grand schemes for remaking the nation or its social policy. He built the university and involved it in solving local problems. The example he set became the standard, which changed the nation. Santyana said, “A country without a memory is a country of madmen.” Gilman’s contribution to the profession’s underpinnings is little known and under appreciated. I hope this paper helps in his gaining acceptance as a significant social work pioneer.


Anonymous. (1926, March 1). At Johns Hopkins. Time, 30.
Anonymous. (1950). Elisabeth Gilman, socialist, was 82, New York Times, p. 31.
Flexner, A. (1940). I remember. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Flexner, A. (1946). Daniel Coit Gilman: creator of the American type of university. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Franklin, F. (1910). The life of Daniel Coit Gilman. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead and Company.
French, J. C. (1946). A history of the university founded by Johns Hopkins. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2011). Daniel Coit Gilman: An unrecognized social work pioneer. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

2 Replies to “Gilman, Daniel Coit”

    • Glad to have you as a user of the Social Welfare History web site. There is a lot to learn about our history and this web site will grow like you will. Regards, Jack Hansan

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.