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Lee, Porter R.

in: People

Porter Raymond Lee: (December 21, 1879  — March 8, 1939) Social Worker, Educator and Author


Porter Raymond Lee
Porter Raymond Lee
Photo: NASW Foundation

Introduction: Porter Lee is most remembered for his contributions to the advancement of social work education and in particular development of the casework method. He worked in Charity Organization Societies in Buffalo, NY and Philadelphia, PA before beginning his lifelong career as a social work educator.  In that role he led a number of his colleagues from existing schools of social work and in May, 1919, created the Association of Schools of Social Work, the forerunner of the Council on Social Work Education.  Lee also was involved in creating the American Association of Social Workers and in 1929 served as president of the National Conference of Social Work.

Background: Born in Buffalo, NY, the third son of Ruben Porter Lee and Jennie (nee Blanchard) Lee.  Porter Lee’s interest in a career in social work was fostered  by his studies at Cornell University.  Following graduation in 1903, he enrolled in the New York School of Philanthropy.  In 1905 he married Ethel Hepburn Pollack of Buffalo and together they had five children.

Career: After completing a six week training course at the New York School of Philanthropy, Lee’s first position was as Assistant Secretary of the Charity Organization Society of Buffalo.  In 1909, Lee assumed the position of general secretary for the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity (PSOC), succeeding Mary E. Richmond.  He continued many of the advances that Mary Richmond had begun and was very active in pursuing formal training for caseworkers. The field of social work at this time began changing and started to become recognized as a vocation and not a field that could be entirely staffed by sympathetic volunteers. This professionalization led PSOC, in collaboration with some other  area social agencies, to form the Philadelphia Training School for Social Work in 1910. In 1914 this institution was renamed the Pennsylvania School for Social Service. In 1935 it became the Pennsylvania School of Social Work and was affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. PSOC maintained a close relationship with the school, and many students obtained their first field experience through PSOC’s training program. PSOC also accepted students from Bryn Mawr College’s and Smith College’s social work programs

The following description of the Philadelphia Training School’s first three years was found in the correspondence of Porter R. Lee:

“We have always had at the Society for Organizing Charity a training course for new workers and some of the other agencies in the city, notably the Children’s Aid Society, have had      similar courses. Three years ago the Children’s Bureau, which is maintained by the Children’s Aid Society, the Society to Protect Children from Cruelty, and the Seybert Institution, conducted a series of lectures twice a week by notable out-of-town leaders in social work, charging $5 for the course and requiring nothing of those who enrolled for the course except attendance. The Training School for Social Work this year has been in a way an outgrowth of these lectures. It has also been an outgrowth of the various training classes conducted by the different societies. That is to say, we felt that the lecture courses lacked the practical field work which ought to go with them, and that no one society was able to give its new workers a broad enough training through a single class session of an hour a week. Our school this year, therefore, has been rather a merging of the various training classes of the different societies and the Children’s Bureau class work.”

/s/ Porter R. Lee, 13 March 1911, Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity

In the years following 1910 the School enjoyed a burst of intellectual innovation, as the faculty and administration worked together to experiment with, revise and strengthen the curriculum and indeed, the entire program. Admissions and graduation requirements were codified; tuition was set high enough to support a major portion of the School’s budget; the structure of instruction moved to the semester system; and the faculty grew in number to nearly two dozen. The “Announcement for 1911 – 1912” articulated “Qualifications for Enrollment” which restricted admission to those who were college graduates or those who were high school graduates with at least a year’s experience in social work. A prerequisite was study between the time of admission and the beginning of the academic year:  Warner’s American Charities; Devine’s Misery and Its Causes; Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House and Allen’s Efficient Democracy.

Lee remained at PSOC until 1912 when he joined the faculty of the New York School of Philanthropy, becoming the Director in 1917 and continuing in that capacity until his retirement in 1938.

In 1919 Lee help found the Association of Schools of Social Work, a forerunner of the Council on Social Work Education, responsible for the development of accreditation standards for graduate social work education. A pioneer in social work education, Lee is credited with being the creator of the “case method” of instruction, the primary social work teaching tool. As the editor of the Milford Conference Report Social Case Work, Generic and Specific (1929), he established a generic theory base for the practice of social case work.

His landmark book, Social Work Cause and Function (1937) explored the tension between broad social problems and the delivery of social work services, concluding that both are the goals of the social work profession.

His warmth, his outgoing personality and genuine interest in people contributed to his being recognized as an outstanding classroom teacher. He served as an inspiration for his students and colleagues, encouraging their development and increased productivity. Lee co-authored two books, Mental Hygiene and Social Work (1929) with Marion Kenworthy, and Social Salvage (1924) with Walter Pettit. His collected speeches and papers on charity organizations are available in the Whitney Young Jr. Memorial Library of Social Work at Columbia University in New York.

References: NASW Foundation

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2012). Porter Raymond Lee: (December 21, 1879 — March 8, 1939) Social worker, educator and author. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from