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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James M. Karls Photo
James M. Karls* (1927-2008)

After serving in World War II, Dr. James M. Karls began his outstanding 59 years of social work in public mental health services at the local and state level. He started the first mental health clinics in California’s Central Valley.  He was the Associate Director and then Director of the Mental Health Training Center in Southern California, which offered seminars to anyone in the mental health field in the southern half of the state. He followed that as Director of Mental Health Research for California. He was a part-time faculty member at UCSB, UCLA, University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State and USC.

Perhaps Dr. Karls’ greatest contribution to the public appreciation of social work is his development of the “Person In the Environment” (PIE) assessment system that distinguishes social work from the other mental health professions. Working with Dr. Karin Wandrei, Dr. Karls used the concept underlying social work practice of person-in-environment to develop a system for social workers to record the results of their assessment that addresses the whole person. It helps the practitioner determine recommended courses of action, and to clearly follow the progress of the work. PIE has been translated into many languages, and it has been computerized. It is used as a teaching tool not only in the U.S., but also in other countries. PIE provides an alternative to the medical model that has traditionally dominated mental health practice, and encourages social work leadership in social rehabilitation, community resources, and advocacy models.

The NASW Press published Dr. Karls’ books and CDs on PIE, which have been translated into eight languages including French, Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Greek, and Hebrew. Dr. Karls traveled extensively around the world teaching international social workers about the PIE assessment system. He was a lifelong NASW member and activist. He chaired several national committees for NASW, including one on case management, and wrote one of the early books on case management. He served as the NASW California Chapter President and the President of the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association. Dr. Karls received numerous social work awards including NASW’s Chapter and Unit Lifetime Achievement awards and the lifetime national recognition award from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. He founded the California Hall of Distinction that honors past and present great social workers in California, and he was inducted in 2008. He was also the recipient of the 2008 International Rhoda G. Sarnat Award.

Wherever social work systems theory is discussed, person in environment or PIE frequently comes up. When Dr. Karls’ name comes up, social workers throughout the country and around the world nod their heads in acknowledgement to this great social worker who has significantly advanced professional social work in theory and practice. 

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.