Lathrop, Julia Clifford (1858–1932)

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Lathrop, Julia Clifford (1858–1932)

American social worker and reformer who was appointed director of the U.S. Children's Bureau (1912) becoming the first woman to head a government bureau. Born in Rockford, Illinois, on June 20, 1858; died in Rockford on June 29, 1932; eldest of five children, two girls and three boys, of William Lathrop (a lawyer and politician) and Sarah Adeline (Potter) Lathrop; attended Rockford Seminary (later Rockford College); graduated from Vassar College, 1880; never married; no children.

A pioneer in the field of child and publicwelfare administration, Julia Lathrop was born in 1858, the eldest of five children, and raised in Rockford, Illinois, where the family had settled in 1851. Her father William Lathrop, a descendant of nonconformist cleric John Lothropp, headed his own law firm and helped organize the Illinois Republican Party, serving in the state legislature and later as a congressional representative. Her mother Sarah Potter Lathrop , valedictorian of the first graduating class of Rockford Seminary, was an ardent suffragist and a cultural leader in the community. Following high school, Julia Lathrop attended Rockford Seminary for a year, then transferred to Vassar College. Graduating in 1880, she then worked as a secretary in her father's law firm and devoted her spare time to a number of reform movements. In 1889, she left Rockford to join Jane Addams at the newly founded social-service settlement, Hull House, in Chicago, where she remained for the next 20 years.

During the depression of 1893, Lathrop was appointed by governor John P. Altgeld to serve on the Illinois Board of Charities. In that capacity, she investigated 102 county farms and poorhouses in the state, examining the facilities and interviewing directors and inmates. In the winter of 1893–94, she interrupted that work to investigate relief applicants in the Hull House district. Her stark descriptions of Cook County's charitable institutions, including the infirmary and insane asylum, were included in the publication Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895). Continuing her state-wide work, Lathrop traveled to Europe in 1898, and again in 1900, to study modern techniques of organizing and staffing charitable facilities. Her experiences became part of a handbook, Suggestions for Visitors to County Poorhouses and to Other Public Charitable Institutions, published in 1905. Within its pages, as well as in her other published articles and in a speech to the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in 1902, Lathrop expressed her objections to the indiscriminate grouping of the young and old and the physically ill and insane in the same state institutions, and suggested separate facilities for delinquent children and specialized hospitals for mental patients. Later, in 1909, Lathrop became a charter member of Clifford W. Beer's National Committee for Mental Hygiene.

In 1901, Lathrop resigned from the Board of Charities in protest over the staffing of state institutions with inadequately trained attendants and political appointees. She would serve the board again from 1905 until her plan for its reorganization along nonpartisan lines was adopted in 1909. In 1903, in order to facilitate an upgrading of institutional staffing, Lathrop joined Graham Taylor in developing a training program which became the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy in 1908. Lathrop both lectured at the school, and, with Sophonisba Breckinridge , established its research department. She continued to serve the school as a trustee until it became part of the University of Chicago in 1920.

Julia Lathrop's ongoing concern with the rehabilitation of child offenders led her to a joint effort with Jane Addams and Lucy L. Flower to find a solution to the problem through the juvenile court movement. In 1899, with the support of the Chicago Woman's Club and the Chicago Bar Association, the women secured legislation to establish the first juvenile court in the country. Constructed on a site across the street from Hull House, the court building housed a detention home and eventually, in 1909, a psychopathic clinic. Lathrop was instrumental in establishing a Juvenile Court Committee which raised money for the salaries of two probation officers for the juvenile court. She also had a hand in the formation of the Illinois Immigrants' Protective League in 1909, and would remain a trustee of the organization until her death.

Lathrop, who never married, was a thinfaced woman with dominant features. Her sincerity and vitality, however, often transformed her plainness, and she could be persuasive. As her friend Jane Addams noted, she had the ability "to evoke a sympathetic response from the most unpromising human mind."

In 1912, Lathrop was appointed by President William Taft to head the newly created Children's Bureau of the Department of Commerce and Labor, and in that post became the first woman to head up a federal bureau. Although her budget and staff were limited, the bureau embarked on a series of studies, the first of which was on infant mortality. After developing a system for uniform birth registration, the bureau undertook studies on child labor, pensions for mothers, illegitimacy, juvenile delinquency, nutrition, and retardation. During World War I, it was additionally concerned with the children of soldiers and working mothers. With the passage of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act in 1916, a Child Labor Division was set up within the bureau to enforce the mandate, and Lathrop appointed Grace Abbott to administrate the division. Lathrop went on to campaign for the Sheppard-Towner Act, offering federal grants-in-aid to states for maternity and infant-care programs, which passed in 1921. That same year, suffering from a hyperthyroid condition, Lathrop resigned as director of the Children's Bureau and was succeeded by Abbott.

Lathrop remained active in retirement, living with her sister in Rockford, Illinois. She served as president of the Illinois League of Women Voters (1922–24) and was also on a presidential commission investigating conditions for immigrants at Ellis Island. She wrote articles and contributed a chapter to The Child, the Clinic, and the Court (1925). From 1925 to 1931, she served as an assessor on the Child Welfare Committee of the League of Nations. In the months just before her death in 1932, she was still at work, attempting to win a reprieve

for a 17-year-old Rockford boy under sentence of execution for murder.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

suggested reading:

Addams, Jane. My Friend, Julia Lathrop, 1935.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Lathrop, Julia Clifford (1858–1932)

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