Switzer, Mary E. (1900–1971)

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Switzer, Mary E. (1900–1971)

Director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation who revolutionized the vocational rehabilitation of the disabled in America. Born Mary Elizabeth Switzer on February 16, 1900, in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts; died on October 16, 1971, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Julius F. Switzer and Margaret (Moore) Switzer; studied at public schools; Radcliffe College, A.B. in international law, 1921; never married; no children; lifelong companion of Isabella Stevenson Diamond.

As director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, held one of the highest appointive offices in the U.S. government; awards include the President's Certificate of Merit, President's Award of the National Rehabilitation Association (1955), Albert Lasker Award (1960), and numerous honorary doctorates, including degrees from Tufts University and Boston University.

Mary Switzer, the oldest of two daughters, was born in 1900 in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, to manual worker Julius F. Switzer and Margaret Moore Switzer . By age 11, Switzer was a virtual orphan: her father had left the family, and her mother had died. She and her sister were raised as Roman Catholics by two maternal aunts and "Uncle Mike" Moore, a machinist, Irish patriot, woman's suffragist and socialist who was an important early influence. From her aunts and uncle, Switzer learned the value of hard work and was encouraged into public service.

Switzer attended public schools, graduating from Newton Classical High School in 1917. She won a scholarship to Radcliffe, helping to support herself with a variety of jobs. Switzer found college a stimulating experience, and she was one of the founders of the reformist Inter-Collegiate Liberal League. She was the first undergraduate at Radcliffe to major in international law, receiving her A.B. in 1921, and moved to Washington, D.C., after graduation. Her first government post there was with the District of Columbia Minimum Wage Board, where she met Isabella Stevenson Diamond , with whom she subsequently lived all her life. Diamond, she later wrote, taught her "the advantage of a balanced life" with "interests as broad as life is … and the way to organize life to enjoy all."

The first dozen years of her career were quiet, while she served as executive secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and then entered the federal civil service. In 1922, she became a junior economist in the Treasury Department and was assigned the task of reporting on current affairs for Secretary Andrew W. Mellon and President Herbert Hoover. In 1934 her career took off when the assistant secretary of the treasury, Josephine Roche , assigned her to oversee the U.S. Public Health Service. Switzer helped to consolidate health and welfare programs into the Federal Security Agency (FSA), which later became the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and is now the Department of Health and Human Services. She received the President's Certificate of Merit for her war work in the highly confidential War Research Service and the Procurement and Assignment Service for medical personnel. She went on to help set up the World Health Organization, demonstrating a gift for hard work and organization that won her much prestige, influence and respect.

Switzer's appointment as director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) in 1950 placed her in one of the highest positions ever given to a woman in the federal government. The OVR had been established in 1920 to award state grants for the vocational rehabilitation of disabled people. Switzer infused the moribund program with dynamic energy and vision, creating a single focus for all private organizations and state and federal agencies: to assist all disabled people in finding satisfying work. At the time she took the post, the number of rehabilitated individuals returning to the work force was 56,000 a year; in ten years, Switzer had increased that number to over 88,000. She also transformed the program by including in its ranks those with severe disabilities who would have been rejected for rehabilitation prior to her tenure, including those with mental illnesses or retardation. Switzer was possibly inspired in this field of work because of contact early in her career with Tracy Copp , a pioneer in equal opportunities for the disabled. Largely as a result of Switzer's dogged dedication, Congress passed the landmark Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1954, funding research, training for specialists, and the construction of rehabilitation centers. The International Society for the Welfare of Cripples honored her with medicine's highest award, the Albert Lasker Award, in 1960 for her efforts on behalf of the disabled. She was the first woman to receive this prestigious honor.

Switzer, who once described herself as a "dedicated bureaucrat," had excellent political skills which helped her survive numerous administrations. She retired in 1970, after serving as administrator of the Social and Rehabilitation Service in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and died of cancer in Washington the following year.


Current Biography Yearbook. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1962.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York