NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Sophie D. Thompson (1920-1987)
Sophie D. Thompson was indeed a pioneer: She was the first Navajo Indian to receive a master of social work degree and the first Native American to specialize in medical social work. Thompson was born near the community of Leupp, Arizona, a Navajo Reservation. Like many Navajo, she migrated with her mother's and her grandmother's sheep herd, learned to weave, and prepared traditional meals. At her grandmother's insistence, Thompson was placed in elementary school. In 1938, she completed her high school education at an Indian boarding school. College education was not encouraged for Indian students at this time.
She developed tuberculosis (TB) and spent ten years in TB sanitariums in Arizona and New Mexico. She married in 1950, but her husband died shortly thereafter. In 1954, she entered the University of New Mexico. To earn her way through college, she worked as a case aide for a TB sanitarium and also made small Navajo arts and crafts. She received her bachelor of arts degree in May 1961 from the University of New Mexico and her master of social work degree from the University of Denver. She began her social work career as a clinical social worker, at the Gallup Indian Medical Center in 1961. In 1963, she directed the clinical social work program at the Public Health Service Indian Hospital in Tuba City. In 1968, she was the supervisor of the Gallup Indian Medical Center's social work program. From 1971 to 1972, she was assistant area social worker for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Window Rock, Arizona. From 1972 to 1987, she was chief of social work services for the Navajo area Indian Health Services in Window Rock. As branch chief, she provided guidance to medical social workers as well as program support to the area director. Tribal, state, and federal agencies consulted her on socioeconomic and psychosocial issues.
Thompson did not confine her interests or influence to the Navajo Reservation. She also provided congressional testimony on two occasions and chaired a National Indian Aging Conference. Her work spanned the areas of aging program services for the mentally retarded and handicapped children, child abuse prevention, care for the elderly, and developing social work staff.
Although she had significant health problems, she refused to slow down. Thompson maintained that you do not retire from life, and social work had been her life.