NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Ruth Irelan Knee (1920 - 2008)
During 30 years of federal service, Ruth Irelan Knee developed social work roles within public health and military health care programs and advanced innovations and improvements in mental health services. Throughout her career, she worked to make quality social work, mental health concepts, and consumer rights integral components of health, mental health, and long-term care programs, policies, and standards.
Knee began her government career during World War II as one of the first psychiatric social workers in the industrial mental health clinic organized by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). She later fostered social work at Walter Reed Army Hospital and returned to PHS to provide leadership to numerous interdisciplinary research and program development initiatives of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
With the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, Knee was the NIMH liaison for policy development and technical assistance concerning the mental health components of these programs. In 1972, she directed all PHS programs in long-term care.
During her career, Knee held many leadership roles in professional organizations. A founder of NASW, she served two terms on the NASW Board of Directors and has served on numerous committees, councils, task forces, and planning groups. The NASW Knee/Wittman Health/Mental Health Achievement awards were created to honor Ruth Knee and Milton Wittman for their contributions to the field and their standards of excellence.
Born in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, Knee was graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts degree in social work and from the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago, with a master of arts degree.
During her retirement, Knee worked with advocacy groups seeking nursing home reforms and consulted for federal agencies and private organizations. She served on the Panel of Legal and Ethical Issues of the President's Commission on Mental Health (1977-1978) and the Institute of Medicine Committee for the Study of the Future of Public Health (1986-1987).