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John Murphy Prentice

(1881 - 1936)

Pioneering Contributions

John Prentice Murphy enjoyed a distinguished career in social work which began before he

graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Economics. Murphy chose

to leave before graduating in order to become General Secretary of the Children’s Bureau in

Philadelphia in 1908. He was one of the first to create models of intervention and outcome

assessment in social work and co-authored a study with Ruth Lawton studying the practices and

outcomes of child outplacement in Boston.

Murphy was an advocate of studying individual behavior and trends and predicting outcomes

with caution since, as he noted in 1930, “We cannot be strictly logical about human beings.

We can prophesy with accuracy about masses of people – but not about individuals.” (Quoted

by Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania in “Commentary” from a Time article dated

June 23, 1930.)

Career Highlights

In addition to heading the Children’s Bureau, Murphy was appointed to the directorship of the

training program at the newly-formed Committee on Training of Workers. The committee established

a program for social workers interested in learning modern principles and techniques of caring for

children. The training was multidisciplinary and included students of pedagogy and theology and well

as social work.

Murphy moved to the Children’s Society in Boston, where he served from 1911 to 1920. He returned

to Philadelphia as executive secretary of the Children’s Bureau of Philadelphia and of the Seybert

Institutions from 1920 to 1936. During the Depression, Murphy was one of the first to call for the

federal government to come to the aid of the destitute. He testified before congress and made many

public appearances. He took the stand that real welfare cannot come from private charities but must

come from the federal government, a novel concept in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

Biographic Data

John Murphy received an honorary BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1934, having dropped out in

1908 to work with the Children’s Bureau of Philadelphia. Murphy died suddenly of pneumonia in 1936.

He was about to begin presiding over the National Conference of Social Work when he died.

Significant Publications

Folks, H., & Murphy, J. P. (1933). Dependent and neglected children: report of the Committee on socially

handicapped-dependency and neglect (Vol. 1). D. Appleton-Century company, incorporated.

Baker, H. F., Hanna, J. L., Dunham, A., Solenberger, E. D., Billikopf, J., Tyson, H. G., & Murphy, J. P. (1931).

Relief Needs and Conditions in Pennsylvania, August, 1931. The Social Service Review, 5(4), 596-628.

Healy, W., Bronner, A. F., Baylor, M. E. M. H., & Murphy, J. P. (1929). Reconstructing behavior in youth: a

study of problem children in foster families (No. 5). New York, Knopf.


A Century of Social Work and Social Welfare at Penn,

General Alumni Catalogue of the University of Pennsylvania.



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