NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Helen Harris Perlman (1906 - 2004)
Helen Harris Perlman who died at the age of 98 in 2004 in Chicago was a pioneering figure in social work who enriched the field of social work with many contributions spanning several decades. She graduated in 1926 from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in English. At that time it was difficult for Jewish graduates to obtain a job in the humanities so she found a job working as a siummer caseworker for the Chicago Jewish Service Bureau. She got a great deal of satisfaction helping people and continued in the field of social work until she received one of four Commonwealth Fund scholarships for students at the New York School of Social Work, now the Columbia University School of Social Work. She has said that "a whole world opened up to me", "I had no idea of the kinds of trouble people had. I got a great deal of satisfaction from being able to help people. I found that in many cases, families faced the same kind of problems and conflicts that one encountered in the great works of literature."
She joined the faculty of the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago, in 1945. She later became the Distinguished Service Professor Emerita. When she turned 90 the School of Social Service announced the establishment of the Helen Harris Perlman Visiting Professorship in the School. The chair was to be filled every two or three years and was endowed by several friends and an anonymous member of the SSA faculty in addition to Perlman and her late husband, Max Perlman.
Perlman was a sought after speaker throughout her career, even when she was a student at the New York School of Social Work, and in later years universities in the United States, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. She is probably best known for her work carrying forward and integrating concepts that emerged from diverging schools of psychoanlytic thought. Her most widely read work, which she began writing on not long after she joined the faculty in Chicago was Social Casework: A Problem Solving Process, which is still used as a text book in schools of social work. The book was published in 1957 and has been translated into more than 10 languages. Her thinking diverged markedly from the then-current popularity of long-term psychotherapy. She didn't think that people akways needed indepth therapy. Today this concept of short-term therapy is a common form of help. After writing Social Casework she wrote more than 75 articles and seven other books including So You Want To Be A Social Worker, The Heart Of Helping People, and edited the book, Helping: Charlotte Towle On Social Casework. She also wrote fiction, poetry, and stories, including the short story "Twelfth Summer' which was published in the NEW YORKER magazine in the 1950s.
She was active throughout her career in professional and educational organizations related to social work and was honored by the National Association of Social Work, the Association of Clinical Social Workers, and the Council of Social Work Education, and received honorary degrees from Boston University, the University of Southern Florida and her alma mater the University of Minnesota.