NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Susan Thames Pettiss
(1912 - 2006)
Susan Pettiss served displaced and refugee communities for more than four decades. She also was a leader in international programs to prevent blindness in children, including the former South Vietnam, Afghanistan and Germany.
Pettiss joined the U.S. Mobile Department of Public Welfare and was in Germany when World War II ended, providing casework service to children. In 1945 she jointed United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and was assigned to the American-held zone in Germany. Her job include reuniting children from other countries with their displaced families.
Pettiss also worked with displaced Jewish children, providing clothing and housing before sending them to kibbutzim (collective communities) in Palestine.
In 1947, she returned to the U.S. to continue her social work education and served as a resettlement officer with the International Refugee Organization in Washington. Her work included finding homes for disabled refugee children.
In 1963 she joined the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as an international social-welfare adviser, where she was “on loan” to U.S. Agency for International Development. That work brought her to South Vietnam in 1967. In 1972, Pettiss took the job as director of Helen Keller International, a blindness-prevention program, serving in that position for 10 years before her retirement.
Susan Pettiss earned her Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 1971. She received her MSW from Columbia University in 1948 and her BA from the University of Alabama in 1933.
Significant Achievements and Awards
1989: Spirit of Helen Keller Award
Pettiss, S. T, & Taylor, L. (2004). After the shooting stopped : the story of an UNRRA welfare worker in Germany 1945-1947. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford.
S. T. Pettiss. (1984). Prevention of xerophthalmia: A decade of progress. A shortened version of a paper presented at the conference of the German Committee for the Prevention of Blindness, Ophthalmology, 57(4), 345-51.
Sommer, S. Toureau, P. Cornet, C. Midy, S. T. Pettiss. (1976). Xerophthalmia and anterior segment blindness. American Journal of Ophthalmology, 82(3), 439-46.