NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Virginia Bellsmith (1911-1982)
Virginia Bellsmith was a sophisticated "street-smart pioneer", who was equally at home teaching doctoral students, talking with teenage students in an Indian boarding school, serving on a federal advisory committee, or interviewing staff and patients in the back wards of a mental hospital. She was a member of the casework faculty of the Columbia University School of Social Work for 29 years. She was named a full professor in 1952 and served as an Assistant Dean of Field Work from 1952-55.
Bellsmith was a 1946 graduate of the Columbia University School of Social Work. Prior to her graduate training, she had worked as "untrained social worker" in the State Mental Hospital Program in New York and at the American Red Cross. During her tenure at Columbia University, she was constantly involved in the development of different approaches to community mental health services. Bellsmith was also one of the faculty members who helped develop and teach the doctoral program at Columbia.
Bellsmith was very active in the American Association of Psychiatric Social Work and later in NASW committees, participating in several of the standards-setting conferences sponsored by these organizations. She also served on National Institute of Mental Health Grant Review Committees and was a special consultant to the National Institute of Mental Health state mental health surveys and studies of community-oriented health practices.
She was able to use whatever resources were at hand to get out of difficult situations. In the mid 60's, for example, she was teaching a late class at Columbia University in an upper level "attic room" when a blackout occurred. There were no elevators and no light, but she knew that one of her students was blind and knew how to navigate through the stairways and hallways, so she had that student lead the class into the main lobby where they could be with others and ultimately go their own ways. Similarly, she was expert in discovering innovative ideas and approaches and in identifying those which could be translated into day to day application.
Bellsmith had a series of strokes in the early 1970's, but continued her university affiliations until her retirement in 1976. She resided in nursing homes for several years trying to make the best of what she considered a bad situation. From her wheelchair, she testified at the Westmoreland Commission in New York in 1975 concerning the problems of the long term care system. This was the commission which brought about many changes in nursing home regulations and quality in New York State. Later Bellsmith was able to arrange with a former student to provide her an opportunity for home care where she stated that she had "rejoined the world". Throughout these years, she was constantly on the alert concerning what federal, state, and personnel policies needed to be changed to bring about improvements in mental health and long term care. She also tried to encourage programs in this country to adopt the more advanced approaches to the care of the permanently disabled that she had seen on her several trips to England and Europe.
Columbia University School of Social Work sponsored a memorial service in May 1982 to commemorate the life and the many contributions of Virginia Bellsmith.