NASW Pioneers Biography Index

The National Association of Social Workers Foundation is pleased to present the NASW Social Work Pioneers®. NASW Pioneers are social workers who have explored new territories and built outposts for human services on many frontiers. Some are well known, while others are less famous outside their immediate colleagues, and the region where they live and work. But each one has made an important contribution to the social work profession, and to social policies through service, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, or legislation.

The NASW Pioneers have paved the way for thousands of other social workers to contribute to the betterment of the human condition; and they are are role models for future generations of social workers. The NASW Foundation has made every effort to provide accurate Pioneer biographies.  Please contact us at to provide missing information, or to correct inaccurate information. It is very important to us to correctly tell these important stories and preserve our history.  

Please note, an asterisk attached to a name reflects Pioneers who have passed away. All NASW Social Work Pioneers® Bios are Copyright © 2021 National Association of Social Workers Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

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Betsy Schaefer Vourlekis Photo
Betsy Schaefer Vourlekis (1942- )

Pioneering Contributions

Betsy Schaefer Vourlekis, PhD, ACSW, has had a social work career that is one of outstanding accomplishment in research, teaching, and practice. Vourlekis’ pioneering efforts have involved partnerships with practitioners and others to demonstrate though data the difference social work can make and to make the case for the profession's varied contributions to health and mental health care. As NASW's Staff Director for Health and Mental Health, she led the Association’s efforts to develop clinical indicators for quality improvement in psychosocial care in acute care hospitals, home health, hospice, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals.

Vourlekis played a leading role in establishing the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR), a collaborative national research advocacy and capacity building organization involving five social work associations. She was appointed to the NIMH Task Force on Social Work Research in 1988 and chaired  the National Implementation Committee on Social Work Research with a primary mission of establishing a research enhancement structure. 

She served as Interim Director of IASWR in 1993 until a permanent director could be appointed. Along with Kathleen Ell at USC, Vourlekis carried out a federally funded 5 year intervention study of a social work led case managed approach to breast and cervical cancer abnormal screening and treatment adherence "Project Safe"  that was selected by the National Cancer Institute for its Research-Tested Interventions website.  Her visualization of the creative role social workers must play in quality health care; her efforts to construct and promote practical evidence-based practice tools; and her disciplined approach to studying and demonstrating the factors that contribute to the highest quality of social work  are areas in which she has truly been a pioneer.

Career Highlights

 After receiving her MSW in 1966 Vourlekis ran a community center in Cuzco, Peru while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. When she returned to the United States in 1969 she worked as a psychiatric social worker at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, where she remained until 1973. Throughout the 1970s, Vourlekis was a field instructor for Smith College, Howard University, and held a faculty position at University of Maryland. From 1973-1980, she was an Assistant Professor at University of Maryland School of Social Work. In 1980, she became the Social Work Training Officer at St. Elizabeths while completing her PhD. She joined the staff of NASW in 1984, serving as staff director for health and mental health. Since 1988, she has been on the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Social Work-Baltimore County, where she is Professor of Social Work. She is the author of numerous articles and has presented her work on quality improvement tools for practice and teaching, and evidence-based social work case management at conferences and workshops both in the US and internationally.

Biographic Data

Born in Buffalo, New York, Betsy Vourlekis grew up in the Boston area, in a family of three brothers. Her youngest brother was profoundly intellectually disabled and cared for at home, a strong influence for her understanding of the need for social resources and emotional support to families. Vourlekis received her BA Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University in 1964, her MSW from Columbia University in 1966, and a PhD in Human Development from the University of Maryland College Park in 1984. As a history major in college, she enjoys researching and writing about the history of the profession, particularly its early roots in psychiatric care.

Significant Achievements and Awards

Vourlekis received an NIMH Graduate Fellowship (1964-66) to study social work at Columbia University. She was awarded the Council on Social Work Education' s "Distinguished Recent Contributions Award" in 1994, and NASW's Knee/Wittman Lifetime Achievement in Health and Mental Health Practice award in 2008. She was elected into the National Academies of Practice as a Distinguished Scholar of Social Work in 2002. As a principal or co-principal investigator she has received more than two and a quarter million dollars in Federal and foundation funded research grants.

Significant Publications

  • Vourlekis, B.S. and Greene, R.R., Editors (1992) Social Work Case Management. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 199 pages.
  • Vourlekis, B.S., Edinburg, G., and Knee, R.I. (1998). The rise of social work in public mental health through aftercare of people with serious mental illness. Social Work (Centennial Issue), 43, 568-575.
  • Vourlekis, B.S., Ell, K., and Padgett, D.K. (2001). Educating social workers for health care’s brave new world. Journal of Social Work Education, 37, 177-191.
  • Vourlekis, B. and Ell, K.  (2007) Best Practice Case Management for Improved Medical Adherence. Social Work in Health Care, 44, 161-177.

NASW Social Work Pioneer - 1998.

Newly Inducted NASW Social Work Pioneer Hortense McClinton 2015

Nominate A New NASW Pioneer

Please note, Pioneer nominations made between today’s date through March 31, 2023, will not be reviewed until spring 2023.

Completed NASW Pioneer nominations can be submitted throughout the year and are reviewed at the June Pioneer Steering Committee Meeting. To be considered at the June meeting, submit your nomination package by March 31. To learn more, visit our Pioneer nomination guidelines.

New Pioneers 

Congratulations newly elected Pioneers!  Pioneers will be inducted at the 2023  Annual Program and Luncheon. Full biographies and event details coming soon.