Julia Lathrop

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Lathrop was an advocate for the mentally ill, immigrants, equal rights for women, social reform and child welfare. Spending over two decades at Chicago's Hull House, she worked closely with Jane Adams and Ellen Gates Star. Lathrop was a pivotal agent in the reformation of the juvenile judicial system, among other areas of human rights.

Biographical Highlights

Julia Lathrop was an advocate for the mentally ill, immigrants, equal rights for women, social reform and child welfare. She was appointed to the Illinois Board of Charities (1893-1901) where her experiences were documented in the handbook Suggestions for Visitors to County Poorhouses and to Other Public Charitable Institutions. She also served as a charter member of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (1909- ), Director of Research in the Chicago School of Civics (1907-1920), founder and trustee of the Illinois Immigrants’ Protective League (1908-1932).  She was appointed the first head of the Federal Children’s Bureau (1912-1921), president of the National Conference of Social Work (1918-1919), president of the Illinois League of Women Voters (1922-1924), and assessor on the Child Welfare Committee of the League of Nations (1925-1931).

Historic Roots

Lathrop was born in Rockford, Illinois on June 29, 1858. She was the first of five children born to William and Sarah Adeline (Potter) Lathrop who had emigrated from England.

She began her college education at Rockford Seminary for one year and then transferred to Vasser College. She received her degree in 1880. For the next ten years she worked as a secretary in her father’s law office. During this period she became interested in the treatment of the mentally ill, equal rights for women and civil service and social reform. Like her father, she became a Republican and attended the Congregational Church.

In 1890 Lathrop joined Jane Adams and Ellen Gates Star at Hull House in Chicago. She spent the next twenty-two years there.  She led organizations to increase public knowledge on child welfare, social work, immigrant protection and the mentally ill.

She died in 1932, at the age of seventy-three, after a goiter operation. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Rockford, IL. (Encyclopedia Britannica)


Julia Lathrop was a pivotal agent in the reformation of the juvenile judicial system. Before legislation was established, there were no separate court systems for juvenile delinquents and adults. The offenses of children were tried under the same laws and courts. Ms Lathrop, with the help of associates, Chicago Woman’s Club and Chicago Bar Association, secured legislation for this separation and the first juvenile court system in the country was created. She also helped set up a psychiatric clinic to help rehabilitate young offenders and raised money to pay the salaries of the first probation officers. (Addams)

Appointed to The Board of Charities in 1893, she advocated for the separation of the mentally ill, sick, aged and disabled that were collectively institutionalized within the same facility. She recommended that separate facilities be established to provide for the specific needs for the varying groups.  Knowing that the effectiveness of the institutions is only as good as their employees, Lathrop argued for adequately trained staff and political appointees. With the collaboration of Graham Taylor, the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy was created. She taught occupational therapy courses for attendants of the mentally ill. The school’s curriculum obtained national attention. (Mifflin)

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Julia Lathrop can be credited for social reform among many groups of people such as: immigrants, children, women, mentally ill, and the poor. She has played an instrumental role in the advocacy of child labor laws and child welfare through the Federal Children’s Bureau. The Children’s Bureau of today, which is a nonprofit organization that receives funding from the US Department of Health and Services, is a direct result of Lathrop’s perseverance. The Children’s Bureau protects children from neglect and abuse and also offers family preservation services, adoption and foster care.

Ms Lathrop advocated for the Rockford League of Women Voters. She encouraged women to develop an interest in politics, public and economic welfare. The Rockford League of Women Voters is still in existence. (Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society)

Key Related Ideas

Child welfare was of great concern, and studies and data were being collected on infant mortality, child labor, juvenile delinquency, and nutrition. As a result, the Child Labor Division was created in 1916.

Immigrants’ Protective League, established in 1911, advocated for the fair treatment of immigrants through the support of laws and regulations. Night schools and immigrant banks were provided. Prior to the enactment of this organization, immigrants were exploited by means of underpaying jobs and international trafficking of prostitution.

The Settlement House Movement, in the 19th and early 20th century, helped the poor improve their lives through educational classes, as well as providing amenities and services. These social services were provided by middle class volunteers and became the training course for the field of social work.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Grace Abbott  (1878-1939): Abbott and Lathrop lived and worked together at Hull House. Together they promoted the education of immigrants and relief to the poor.  She became the director of the Child-Labor Division of The Children’s Bureau where she worked closely with Julia Lathrop.  Together they enacted child labor laws that were declared unconstitutional in 1918. She preceded Lathrop as director of The Children’s Bureau in 1921. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
  • Jane Addams (1860-1935): She was the founder of Hull House, where Lathrop lived for twenty years. Together with other Hull House associates they made headway in social and civil reform. They created the Illinois Immigrants’ Protective League, Juvenile Protective Association and Institute for Juvenile Research.  Through their hard work, they also enacted protective laws for women and children. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
  • Graham Taylor (1851-1938): A minister and social work educator, he helped Julia Lathrop create the courses that became the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Taylor served as president of the School of Social Economics, which later became the Social Security Administration (SSA). He offered the first courses on social work. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Rockford League of Women Voters is a northern Illinois regional based nonprofit organization. Julia Lathrop was president of this organization from 1922-1924. This organization is still in existence and promotes political responsibility through informed and active participation of citizens in government. The group itself remains politically nonpartisan.
  • CHA’s Julia C. Lathrop Homes in collaboration with Friends of the Chicago River are combining resources to improve the status of the Chicago River and to revitalize the community through education and outreach programs. https://www.chicagoriver.org/programs/aarlathrop.asp
  • Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is located inside the original Hull House buildings, located in Chicago, IL. The museum represents the long-standing traditions of social service and reform. http://wall.aa.uic.edu:62730/artifact/HullHouse.asp


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Addams, Jane. My friend, Julia Lathrop. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  • Bradbury, Dorothy. Four Decades of Action For Children: a short history of the Children’s Bureau. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1956. History Page: SSA
  • Mifflin, Houghton. “Settlement House Movement.”  http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/women/html/wh_033300_settlementho.htm
  • Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society. “Julia Lathrop.”  http://faculty.webster.edu/~woolflm/lathrop.html


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.