NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Katherine Brownell Oettinger
(1903 - 1997)
It is hard to capture the many talents which describe the persona of Kay Oettinger. A devoted wife, loving mother, and hard working professional woman, she was able to keep all roles in equilibrium, due to commitment and boundless energy.
If ever the work "pioneer" could be applied to an individual, it is appropriate for Oettinger. From the days at Smith College, when her debating team became the first to challenge a team from a men's college, to her efforts on behalf of international population control, she was always in the forefront of innovation and progress. Her administrative talents were evident early on. Entering Smith College in 1921, she opened her own tea room and also became business manager of the literary magazine. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and, on a Rockefeller scholarship, entered the Smith College School of Social Work in 1926.
What took place in her career development is exciting and was always significant for widening the horizons of the profession of social welfare. Her first position was with the Charity Organization Society in New York City which probably provided fodder for her lifetime concern for families and children. She left there to take on an assignment as mental health consultant for a visiting nurse association, a new idea subsequently developed in depth and documented by Gerald Caplan when he did his famous work on consultation in Israel and at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School.
She was Chief Social Worker for the Department of Mental Health in Pennsylvania. She then moved on to become Dean of the Boston University School of Social Work. As Dean, she exercised her skills in management. She used figures, particularly the budget, to advocate for more funds for the educational program for social workers entering the mental health field. She participated in curriculum development nationally and in her own school and emphasized interdisciplinary training.
With her background, it is not surprising that Kay received the call to serve her country on the national level. In 1957, she became Chief of the United States Children's Bureau, where she remained until 1968. For one year, she was the Deputy Assistant for HEW. She was an effective advocate on the "Hill" which enabled her to increase the budget and strengthen the programs. She became an enthusiastic worker on the international scene as the US representative to UNICEF. Her concern for family planning and population control was well recognized and a special post was created to enable her to carry out her activities.
Upon her retirement, she took at position with the International Association of Schools of Social Work, where she pioneered a worldwide program to promote the training of social workers for more effective service in the fields of population control and family planning.
In 1984, the Schlessinger Library selected her as one of its subjects for a project entitled "Women in the Federal Government." She is the author of three books: Population and Family Planning -- Analytical Abstracts for Social Work Educators and Related Disciplines; Social Work in Action: An International Perspective on Population and Family Planning; and "Not My Daughter" Facing up to Adolescent Pregnancy.