Towle, Charlotte

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Psychiatric social worker. Professor, the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago.

From the description of Papers, 1915-1968. (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52248438

Charlotte Towle (1896-1966) was born and raised in Butte, Montana. She received a BA in education from Goucher College (1919), but after graduation accepted a job with the American Red Cross which strengthened her interest in social work. With the aid of a Commonwealth Fund fellowship, she attended the New York School of Social Work, completing her studies in psychiatric social work in 1926. For two years she was director of the Home Finding Department of The Children's Aid Society of Philadelphia, and from 1928 to 1932 she gained experience in casework supervision and further training in psychiatric social work at the Institute for Child Guidance in New York. Established by the Commonwealth Fund as a model clinic, the Institute was in the forefront of psychiatric social work theory and practice. Towle served as the Institute's fieldwork supervisor for students from the New York and Smith College schools of social work.

In 1932 Towle accepted an appointment to the faculty of the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago. Because of its origins in the settlement movement, SSA's curriculum was oriented toward social welfare policy and administration. Edith Abbott, Dean from 1924 to 1942, had initially resisted the trend in the profession toward an emphasis on a psychiatric model in casework. However, when the Commonwealth Fund offered student stipends to SSA contingent on the introduction of psychiatric casework courses into the curriculum and the development of psychiatric field placements, Abbott invited Towle to join the faculty in order to strengthen its psychiatric emphasis.

In the 1930's the casework curriculum in most schools of social work consisted of one introductory course, often referred to as "generic," and many specialized courses. Consequently, the application of psychological knowledge was regarded as the nearly exclusive domain of psychiatric social work. Towle, convinced that all caseworkers needed knowledge about human behavior as well as access to a broad spectrum of treatment approaches, utilized case material from all fields of practice in her casework courses. She emphasized the consideration of multiple social and psychological factors in diagnosis and a range of treatment approaches as generic for all caseworkers (8:13-15, 9:1-11, 13-16, and 10:1-3). In 1941 Towle edited a collection of Social Case Records from Psychiatric Clinics with Discussion Notes as a volume in the Social Service Series published by SSA (4:5). Through widespread classroom use of this book and through her work on the curriculum committees of the American Association of Schools of Social Work and the American Association of Psychiatric Social Workers, she helped define a generic casework curriculum for most schools (2:10-13, 3:3, and 8:10).

Not only did Towle's psychiatric orientation affect the SSA curriculum, but she herself was influenced by the broad social concerns and activities of colleagues such as Grace and Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge. For example, Towle became interested in the philosophy of social work. In a 1945 book, Common Human Needs, she sketched for public assistance workers the link between understanding human behavior and administering social welfare programs: psychological needs and forces, she argued, were related to social forces and experience (11:1-4). The book was enthusiastically received (1:3-8) and was eventually translated into eight languages (Box 13).

Ironically, Towle's book received its widest publicity in 1951 through what came to be called "The Common Human Needs Affair". The incident began when the president of the American Medical Association noted Towle's statement, "Social security and public assistance programs are a basic essential for attainment of the socialized state envisaged in a democratic ideology, a way of life which so far has been realized only in slight measure." (p. 57) Taking the sentence out of context, he construed "socialized state" as political propaganda and accused the administrator of the Federal Security Agency, which had published the book, of promoting socialist attitudes. As a result, the administrator, Oscar Ewing, ordered the Government Printing Office to destroy all of its remaining copies. The social work profession as well as civil libertarians rallied around Towle (1:11-16), but Ewing did not rescind his order. Consequently, the National Association of Social Workers republished the work and it received wide circulation.

A third focus of Towle's intellectual interest was her effort to synthesize theories of education and of personality to develop a more comprehensive approach to professional education in social work as well as in other professions. Her courses in Growth and Development of Personality (6:18-20, 7:1-14, and 8:1-7) and Dynamics of Learning and Teaching (5:7-10 and 6:1-6) reflected this interest, as did many of her papers and articles. She summarized her theories in a 1954 book, The Learner in Education for the Professions (3:10-12).

Towle's leadership in generic casework theory and in casework education resulted in an invitation to spend 1954-55 as a senior Fulbright scholar at the London School of Economics, acting as educational consultant in its Applied Social Sciences sequence and helping English casework teachers to develop case materials. When her passport was temporarily withheld on suspicion of "communist" leanings (holding membership in two alleged front organizations and having signed a clemency petition for the Rosenbergs were adduced as evidence), she again became a cause célèbre in her profession and beyond (3:2). Her reputation cleared, she finally obtained a passport and spent a productive year in London (3:1, 12:1, and 12:7).

During the later years of her career, Charlotte Towle's national stature as a social work theorist and practitioner was acknowledged as she received several honorary doctorates as well as citations from professional organizations. Towle retired from the SSA faculty in 1964, but continued part time work for two years as a fieldwork supervisor for SSA students. She had just retired from this position at the time of her


From the guide to the Towle, Charlotte. Papers, 1915-1968, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Benjamin E. Youngdahl Papers, 1916-1968, (bulk 1940s-1962) University of Minnesota Libraries. Social Welfare History Archives. [swha]
creatorOf Towle, Charlotte. Papers, 1915-1968 Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library,
creatorOf Towle, Charlotte. Papers, 1915-1968. University of Chicago Library
creatorOf Hollis, Florence. Papers 1863-1987 1930-1986. Smith College, Neilson Library
referencedIn Dummer, Ethel Sturges, 1866-1954. Papers, 1689-1962 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Florence Hollis and Rosemary Ross Reynolds Papers MS 210., 1863-1987, 1930-1986 Sophia Smith Collection
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Women social workers
Social service
Social work education
Child welfare
Public welfare
Social workers


Birth 1896

Death 1966




Ark ID: w6rn3pjs

SNAC ID: 24544190