NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
John Murphy Prentice
(1881 - 1936)
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.)
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.
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.
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.