Richmond, Mary Ellen

Pioneer of professional social work and an integral part of women's history in the United States, Mary Ellen Richmond's work with families and their social problems, as well as her research, provided valuable insight into how charity evolved into social work. She successfully created a model for social casework (also known as case management) and the approach now known in the social work field as person-in-environment perspective.

Biographical Highlights

Pioneer of professional social work and an integral part of women's history in the United States, Mary Ellen Richmond's work with families and their social problems, as well as her research, provided valuable insight into how charity evolved into social work. She successfully created a model for social casework (also known as case management) and the approach now known in the social work field as person-in-environment perspective.

Richmond was primarily a self-taught scholar and lover of literature, which allowed her the ability to conceptualize social casework from assessment to direct practice and evaluation. She helped establish professional education for social work. Richmond was influential in developing the social investigation process and the concept and importance of the therapeutic relationship (Deutch 1987, 52).

Historic Roots

Mary Ellen Richmond (1861-1928) was born in Belleville, Illinois. A few years later, after the death of her parents, she was sent to live with her grandmother and aunts in Baltimore, Maryland. Her grandmother, an active women's suffragist, was known as a spiritualist and a radical. Richmond grew up surrounded by discussions of suffrage, racial problems, spiritualism, and a variety of liberal religious, social, and political beliefs. This upbringing promoted critical thinking and social activism in her.

Since Richmond's grandmother and aunts were not fond of the traditional education system, she was home schooled until the age of eleven when she entered a public school. Social interaction or relationships were not her strong point and she dedicated herself to reading literature. She graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and went with one of her aunts to New York. She took a job at a publishing house doing a variety of clerical and mechanical tasks, a very difficult life with twelve-hour workdays. Her aunt soon became ill and returned to Baltimore, leaving Mary on her own at the age of seventeen. Mary's life was one of loneliness, hard work, and poverty. She had health problems and often did not have money for food or decent clothing.

After two years in New York, Richmond returned to Baltimore and worked for several years as a bookkeeper. During this time, she became involved with the Unitarian Church and developed social skills as she met new friends. Additionally, she sought something in life to bring personal fulfillment. In 1888, Richmond applied for a job as Assistant Treasurer with the Charity Organization Society (COS) of Baltimore. The Charity Organization Societies in several cities were the first organizations to develop a structured social work profession, providing social services to the poor, disabled, and needy (especially children).

Richmond was responsible for increasing the public's awareness of the COS and for fundraising. She made speeches to organizations and groups around Baltimore. She soon was trained to become a "friendly visitor," an early version of a caseworker, who visited the homes of people in need and tried to help them improve their life situation. In 1891, Richmond was elected as the General Secretary of the COS of Baltimore. Her work in the organization lasted more than ten years, during which she greatly increased its funding and work. She began to develop ideas of how casework could best be conducted to help those in need (such as to develop relationships and to support poor and needy individuals in a way that guides them to a better life).

Richmond became the director of the Charity Organizational Department of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York in 1909. With the support of the foundation, she helped establish networks of social workers and a method by which they did their work. She also began publishing her ideas in books (such as Friendly Visiting among the Poor, Social Diagnosis, and What is Social Case Work). At the Foundation, Richmond conducted research studies such as Nine Hundred Eighty-five Widows (with Fred Hall) which looked at families, their work situations, the financial resources of widows and how widows were treated by social welfare systems (Woolf 2002).

Within her published books, Richmond demonstrated the understanding of social casework. She believed in the relationship between people and their social environment as the major factor of their life situation or status. Her ideas on casework were based on social theory rather than strictly a psychological perspective. She believed that social problems for a family or individual should be looked at by first looking at the individual or family, then including their closest social ties such as families, schools, churches, and jobs. Finally, casework would then look at the community and government dictating the norms for the person/family to help determine how to help the person or family make adjustments to improve their situation.

Richmond also believed in focusing on the strengths of the person or family rather than blaming them for being bad. Much of her focus was on children, families, and medical social work. She concentrated on the community as being a resource for any needy person or family. Her ideas on social work were quite revolutionary for the time and have made a resurgence after decades of an approach which blamed the person for their problems. These ideas are now the basis for current social work education.

Richmond's involvement with the Russell Sage Foundation allowed her to publish her ideas and to help establish social workers in many communities and with different organizations. These social workers were among the first enabled to develop methods and systems for helping needy families. Her leadership and success at developing social work and social work research encouraged many philanthropic organizations to continue financial support and development of the practice of social work.


With Richmond's dedication and professionalism, scientific philanthropy became recognized and developed (Heffernan, Shuttlesworth, & Ambrosino 1997, 40). Her casework practice, administrative talents, research, and emphasis on social work education created a professional atmosphere in what was previously considered charity work. This professionalized social work allowed philanthropic organizations to provide funding at a time when there was no systematic financial or structural support for such work. Previously charity work had been performed mainly by wealthy women, using the financial support of their churches, with no understanding or knowledge on how to best serve the people. Richmond's insistence on social work education led to beginning of schools of social work, such as Columbia University's School of Social Work in New York City.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Mary Ellen Richmond began her social work career with the Charity Organization Society (COS) of Baltimore which allowed her the opportunity to work within her community to raise funds for the work of the COS. Later, Richmond worked as the Director of the Charity Organization Department for the Russell Sage Foundation where she promoted the institutionalization of social work with support of philanthropies.

Key Related Ideas

Social casework, including group work and therapeutic relationships, were developed by Mary Ellen Richmond during her illustrious career. Social casework includes using a person-in-environment or care-centered approach. These address all of the systems that have an affect on a person. This type of casework allows the social worker and the client to try to find a resolution to the client's problem by finding which system is causing the issue. These systems include the person's family, community, work, education, health, and the social policies or laws of the community and state. This approach assumes that a person's life difficulty should be addressed by determining the social and political factors that may be contributing to the problem. Richmond's research and writing influenced government, philanthropic organizations, and for-profit organizations to offer funding and services to "those in need" (Hiersteiner & Peterson 1999).

Based on Richmond's practical experience and her research, the idea of social diagnosis was created. This idea can be explained by Richmond's thoughts that a person's problems are due to something in his or her social environment. Currently in social work, social diagnosis is conducted through a psycho-social assessment on a person. The assessment leads to addressing the idea of social justice on which much social work is currently based and focused. While Richmond's practice focused on the individual and their social diagnosis, it then led to her research, writing, and teaching focusing on social justice. By relating the practice to the concept, she was able to influence philanthropy and universities to address both the practical and policy side of social problems.

Important People Related to the Topic

Virginia Robinson (1892-1967) worked with families and children and wrote about her casework. Much of her work was funded by private foundations. Her focus was to help families in need and in transition. Robinson used a psychological method rather than the social diagnosis used by Richmond.

Jane Addams (1860-1935) founded Hull House, one of the first American settlement houses in Chicago in 1869. Addams' helped individuals and families deal with poor housing, low wages, and child labor; she also assisted immigrants with adjusting to their new society (Heffernan, Shuttlesworth, & Ambrosino 1997, 15). Addams received philanthropic support to fund the settlement house and her community work. Her dedication to social justice led her to also be known as a pioneer of social work.

Bertha Reynolds (1885-1978) advocated for social justice. In her practice, she worked with social casework in foster care, child guidance, and psychiatric settings. She strongly supported the care-centered approach in looking at the person and their social environment. Reynolds focused on the strengths of the individual and on community activity to fight for social justice and to improve the lives of all in the community.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Mary Ellen Richmond's social work began with the Charity Organization Society of Baltimore. The COS movement was centered around consideration of the individual's circumstance that led to poverty and providing assistance and training to empower the individual to change his or her life. The COS of Baltimore published and circulated case records of work with real clients on the premise that people doing charity could learn by analyzing the work of one another. At the time, these publications were the only source of training and information.

Richmond's success led to her being hired by the Russell Sage Foundation to create and develop the Charity Organization Department. Through support for her work at the Foundation, she was able to publish works such as Social Diagnosis and What is Social Casework. In turn, this led to the promotion of schools of social work at universities around the country, including Columbia University. The Russell Sage Foundation, founded in 1907, is dedicated to strengthening social sciences as well as improving the social and living conditions of the poor and elderly, and improving the quality of care in hospitals (The Russell Sage Foundation 2002).

Related Web Sites

The Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society Web site ( provides links to women anthropologists, psychoanalysts, psychologists, sociologists, and social workers. This site is provided by Linda M. Woolf, Associate Professor of Psychology at Webster University.

The Russell Sage Foundation Web site contains a history of the organization as well as information on their programs. See


Deutch, James A. "Mary E. Richmond: A Compassionate Scholar Was in Our Midst," Journal of Independent Social Work (1987): 2, 45-55.

Heffernan, J., Shuttlesworth, G., and R. Ambrosino. Social Work and Social Welfare: An Introduction, 3rd Edition. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN: 0-314-06715-9

Hiersteiner, C. and K. Jean Peterson. "Crafting a Usable Past: The Care-Centered Practice Narrative in Social Work," Affilia (1999): 14,144-61.

The Russell Sage Foundation. Our History. [cited 28 September 2002]. Available from

Toikko, Timo. "Sociological and Psychological Discourses in Social Casework During the 1920's," Families in Society (1999): 80,351-8.

Woolf, Linda M. Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society: Mary Ellen Richmond. Webster University. [cited 22 September 2002]. Available from

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.