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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Ruth Irelan Knee Photo
Ruth Irelan Knee* (1920-2008)

During 30 years of federal service, Ruth Irelan Knee developed social work roles within public health and military health care programs and advanced innovations and improvements in mental health services. Throughout her career, she worked to make quality social work, mental health concepts, and consumer rights integral components of health, mental health, and long-term care programs, policies, and standards.

Knee began her government career during World War II as one of the first psychiatric social workers in the industrial mental health clinic organized by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). She later fostered social work at Walter Reed Army Hospital and returned to PHS to provide leadership to numerous interdisciplinary research and program development initiatives of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). With the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, Knee was the NIMH liaison for policy development and technical assistance concerning the mental health components of these programs. In 1972, she directed all PHS programs in long-term care.

During her career, Knee held many leadership roles in professional organizations. A founder of NASW, she served two terms on the NASW Board of Directors and served on numerous committees, councils, task forces, and planning groups. The NASW Knee/Wittman Health/Mental Health Achievement awards were created to honor Ruth Knee and Milton Wittman for their contributions to the field and their standards of excellence.

Born in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, Knee graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Social Work and from the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago, with a Master of Arts Degree. During her retirement, Knee worked with advocacy groups seeking nursing home reforms and consulted for federal agencies and private organizations. She served on the Panel of Legal and Ethical Issues of the President's Commission on Mental Health (1977-1978) and the Institute of Medicine Committee for the Study of the Future of Public Health (1986-1987).

Remarks by Nick Miller - Remembering Ruth Irelan Knee, Washington National Cathedral, November 14, 2008

My name is Nick Miller. My cousin, Ruth IRELAN KNEE, died on October 8th and I have been asked by the family to welcome all of you and to thank you for coming today to remember Ruth
KNEE and to celebrate her extraordinary life. Ruth Knee and I were not related by blood. I first came to know Cousin Ruth in 1964, when I married Mary Anne DAUBIN, Ruth's first cousin. Ruth's mother, Daisy DAUBIN IRELAN, was Mary Anne's aunt, the older sister of her father. My late wife's father, Meredith DAUBIN, used to say, "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives." Ruth and I may not have been related by blood, but we were related by marriage and—even more closely—related by a friendship that deepened over the course of more than four decades.

Today we are here not to grieve but to remember Ruth IRELAND KNEE and to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable woman. Ruth KNEE had a long and fruitful life. She was 88 years-old when she died. But it is not the span of 88 years that we celebrate but what she did during those 88 years—the ways she enriched the lives of others and the ways she touched our lives. Ruth was a pioneer in the field of Social Work as applied to Health Care. It's no wonder since Ruth's origins were in the American heartland—where her parents were true pioneers—and the story of Ruth KNEE is an unusual American story.

Ruth Ella IRELAN was born in Sapulpa, Oklahoma in 1920—only 13 years after the Oklahoma Territory was merged with what was known as Indian Territory to become the state of OKLAHOMA. Ruth's mother, Daisy Dye DAUBIN, married Oren Miller IRELAN in Lamar, Missouri, in 1905 and went to live in Oklahoma Indian Territory—home to the so-called Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles, (as well as to the Osage, Otoe, Caddo, Pawnees, Comanche, and other Native American peoples who had been driven from their lands and brought there by tragic forced march in what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Oren and Daisy IRELAN were well-known and influential people in the town of Sapulpa: Oren was the publisher of Sapulpa's first newspaper, the Sapulpa Light—at first a weekly and then a daily newspaper—and, later, the Sapulpa Herald—the main newspaper in Sapulpa today. Oren and Daisy also helped found the first church in Sapulpa and Daisy became a pillar in the W.C.T.U. (Women's Christian Temperance Union—a national organization that still exists to fight against the evils of drink. Ruth didn't quite see eye-to-eye with her mother on that issue.

After graduating from Sapulpa High School, Ruth IRELAN attended the University of Oklahoma and graduated with honors in 1941 and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. She then went to the University of Chicago to obtain a Master of Arts degree from its renowned School of Social Service Administration. In 1943 she married fellow Oklahoman, Junior Koenig KNEE. Junior Knee, was the son of highly respected physician L.C. Knee, a pioneer of the earliest days of Lawton, Oklahoma. (Dr. Knee—who was acquainted with famed outlaw, Jesse James, and his brother, Frank—once spent months, together with two comrades, searching for a two-million dollar treasure, rumored to have been buried by the James brothers in the Wichita Mountains country, near the town of Apache, Oklahoma. Although he unearthed clues to the buried cache, L.C. Knee, finally gave up in disgust after spending nearly $4,000 on the search.)

Junior Knee, also a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, held a master's degree in Public Health. Right after their marriage Ruth and Junior moved to wartime Washington, DC, where they began working with the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), where Ruth became one of its first psychiatric social workers, and later coordinated the work of the Public Health Service with the National Institute of Mental Health and Walter Reed Hospital. Before her retirement in 1973, after a thirty-year career in government, Ruth directed Public Health Service programs in long-term care.

Ruth Knee was a founder of the National Association of Social Workers, served two terms on its Board of Directors, and over the years served also on numerous committees, councils, task forces, and planning groups. She was co-founder of the association's Social Work Pioneers program to honor contributions to the profession. The NASW Foundation Knee /Wittman Health & Mental Health Achievement awards were named partly in her honor.

After her retirement from Government in 1973, after 30 years of service, Ruth Knee continued to be active in social work and health advocacy groups and was a consultant to federal agencies and private groups. After her beloved husband, Junior Knee, died in 1981, she continued to work tirelessly to improve the regulation of mental hospitals and nursing homes for aged. Ruth Knee became one of the first women admitted to membership in Washington's prestigious Cosmos Club, when, in 1988—after 110 years as an all-male enclave—it decided to admit the fairer sex. She served on committees of the Cosmos Club, of the Washington National Cathedral, the Phi Beta Kappa, and the Women's Democratic Club. She also managed to find time to author articles and books with such catchy titles as, "The Rise of Social Work in Public Mental Health through Aftercare of People with Serious Mental Illness."

Ruth's dedicated and ground-breaking work in the fields of Social Work and Public Health did not fail to receive recognition. She became the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Yet Ruth continued to remain Ruth. Back in the days, when eager young rustics were descending upon the great cities in search of fame and fortune, it used to be said that you could take the boy out of the country but you couldn't take the country out of the boy. Well, you could take Ruth out of Oklahoma, but Cousin Ruth remained a proud Oklahoman all of her life. She continued to receive and read the Sapulpa newspapers and other Oklahoma publications, maintained contact with old friends in Oklahoma, and was an avid follower of the Sooners, University of Oklahoma football team. Her home on Arlington Boulevard, in Fairfax, went by the name of Oakie Acres.

Because of Oklahoma's large Indian population (the largest in the nation) Ruth was always greatly interested and concerned with the welfare of Native Americans. But then again, Ruth's was concerned about the welfare of all Americans. Her life was one of service and dedication to her fellow man. That's what she was about and that was why she became a social worker. She was a fervent believer in democracy and in civil rights and human rights for all people: for people of all races, all religions. For minorities and immigrants for sick people, for old people, for people who were mentally ill. Not only did she work on their behalf, she also donated her time and made financial contributions to what she many good causes.

At the same time, Ruth was always interested in family, always provided an attentive and sympathetic ear, and was a sounding board for discussion of family matters. When my in-laws, Meredith and Martha Belle DAUBIN passed away, Ruth became the matriarch of the far-flung DAUBIN family, with whom she maintained personal contact by phone and email. We always looked forward to Ruth's annual Christmas letter from the Little People of Oakie Acres, which, in addition to her family news and news about her beloved dogs, most recently: Nadia and Noodles, she also wrote about the small animals—squirrels, raccoons, possum, chipmunks—that lived on her land, while often making humorous asides on national and world affairs.

Ruth had a lively interest in what was going on in the world, in the country, and around the corner. She loved a good political discussion. I'm sorry Ruth died before the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. She would have been delighted to see America rise above its prejudices to elect a man of color—with so foreign sounding a name—as President of the United States. So our dear Cousin Ruth is no longer with us. Not only was she a refined, educated, and compassionate woman, she was an institution—dynamic and greatly involved with the many things that interested her. To us she seemed perennial and indestructible. It is hard to imagine that she will not be there to contribute her charm and wit to long discussions on family, on politics, on ethics, and on the state of the world.

Lucretius, writing 2200 years ago, said that we are not given the gift of life; it is only a loan. I would put it another way:We and our loved ones are all on loan to one another. So we must be grateful for the time we have together and make the most of it. We, Ruth's family, are, indeed, grateful for the time we had with Cousin Ruth Knee. Ruth, who traveled the length and breadth of this country in her work, will make one final trip when her ashes are laid to rest in Highland cemetery, in Lawton, Oklahoma—where she already has a place reserved next to Junior—in the Knee family plot, where Junior's father, Dr. LC Knee, and his German-born mother, Anna Koenig Knee, are also buried. We, Ruth's family, will sorely miss her wisdom, her attentive understanding, her humor, her charm, and her love.

Remarks by Robert Carter Arnold, NASW Foundation - Ruth Irelan Knee: Her National Legacy

I am so honored to be here today representing the National Office of the National Association of Social Workers and our 150,000 social worker members. My name is Bob Arnold.  As Director of the NASW Foundation, I feel very fortunate to have known Ruth—and to have worked with her closely—for the past 7 years. I joined NASW in 2001 and, before I knew it, I had been invited to have lunch with Ruth Knee and Mark Battle here at the Cosmos Club—learning about the history of the organization and what I needed to do.

My impossible task today is to talk about Ruth Knee’s involvement and legacy at the national level of NASW—50-plus years—in just a few minutes. We, at the Foundation, have spent considerable time researching and reviewing Ruth’s past involvement with NASW…which is intertwined with the entire history of NASW… and even earlier. Special thanks to Kerri Criswell Major who helped compile a Tribute Book for Ruth’s Family. We came across a newsletter from the American Association of Psychiatric Social Workers. The year was 1951, and Mrs. Ruth Knee was the president—at age 31. On the front page of the newsletter was the bold headline:  “Mrs. Knee names many activities needing attention and action.” 

Ruth was a member of the council of the existing social work organizations that came together to form one— the National Association of Social Workers. In 1955, the seven organizations merged and there, on NASW’s first national board, was Ruth Knee. She was elected to the Executive Board and served as the first Secretary of NASW from 1955 to 1957. Ruth was also mentioned in the first issue of NASW News in November 1955. Ruth had high standards and expected the same of others. In 1963, Ruth was appointed chair of the Committee on the Study of Competence.  This new committee, for the first time, made a concerted effort to understand and define the nature of competence in the practice of social work in all of its various forms and fields.  Among those on the committee were Lewis W. Carr and Ruth Fizdale.  

In 1971, NASW President Whitney M. Young, Jr., appointed Ruth to the newly-formed NASW Competence Certification Board. In 1974, Ruth quote unquote “retired” from the US Public Health Service.  That left more time for NASW and her other volunteer activities and interests. She chaired the group that developed NASW’s “Standards for Social Work Services in Long-Term Care Facilities.” She served on the Editorial Committee of the journal, Health and Social Work. 

She served as an NASW representative to the Joint Commission on Inter-Professional Affairs.  For years, she was part of the regular meetings with the psychiatrists, the psychologists, and the nurses.   Throughout her life, Ruth constantly urged the four major mental health professions to meet together and work together. She served on the Social Work Case Management Task Force. She served as a member of the US President’s Commission on Mental Health. She served on the Health Education and Welfare Committee on Mental Health and Illness of the Elderly. And she even formed a new organization—a Washington-based coalition of national organizations called “The Forum on Long-Term Care.” In 1984, a new Executive Director was selected for NASW:  Mark Battle.  Mark was then an NASW Board Member.  Who did the NASW Board select to fill the remainder of Mark’s term, but Ruth Knee—who again served on the NASW Board from 1984 to 1986. 

In 1986, the NASW Board passed a resolution commending Ruth Knee for her outstanding career and contributions to social work, calling her “a pioneer in the development of community health services and military social work.” In 1986-1987, Ruth served on the Institute of Medicine Committee for the Study of the Future of Public Health. In 1989, the NASW Board of Directors approved the establishment of the Ruth Knee/Milton Wittman Health and Mental Health Achievement Awards and in 1990 the first awards were given—to Dr. Helen Rehr and to Dr. Bernice Catherine Harper.  Recipients have been honored each year since and the Knee/Wittman Awards are recognized nationally.   We are delighted that Peretz Wittman, Milt Wittman’s son, is here today.

A number of Knee/Wittman Award recipients are here today. About the same time, the NASW Social Work Pioneer Program was created to help recall the people and events that led to the current accomplishments of the Social Work profession. By 1992, Ruth and Corinne Wolfe were leading a fundraising drive to create a designated Pioneer Room in the new NASW headquarters, where NASW is now located. 1998 was celebrated as “100 Years of Professional Social Work.”  Some of you were part of the activities and recall that Ruth, as Co-Chair of the Pioneers, spoke at the reception –when the NASW Social Work Centennial Collection was presented to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  

The Pioneers have been a key force behind the LEGACY Project.  During the past 7 years, a renewed attempt has been made to gather, organize, preserve, and disseminate materials about NASW’s history—and its key people. Major accomplishments include: the hiring of a professional archivist; the NASW 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book; and the 50th Anniversary Exhibit. Ruth Knee’s impact was also felt in the printed word:  she was published in 5 editions of the Encyclopedia of Social Work and in numerous journals and government reports. 

Year after year, barely a day went by that one of us in the Foundation did not speak with Ruth.  She was part of NASW from the time of its creation– for more than 50 years.  I know every time I spoke with her I came away with another page of tasks and items to follow up on. I would be remiss not to mention Ruth’s dogs.  And my own dog would never forgive me.  You all know about Ruth’s dogs—who were rescue dogs—including Nadia, Noodles, and Mr. Lucky. Mr. Lucky had been abandoned and had two broken legs.  Ruth took him in and made him a part of her home.  It’s just another way Ruth lived out her values.

Throughout her life, Ruth Knee made a tremendous impact on the National Association of Social Workers, on the social work profession, on the lives of those helped by her professional expertise, and on everyone who was part of her life. We pledge to continue her work and to carry on the good fight to help improve the world around us. For there is much to be done…and, just as in 1951, Mrs. Knee still has—for us—for each of us—many activities needing our attention and action.” 

Remarks by Dr. Bernice Catherine Harper, NASW Social Work Pioneer - A Tribute To Ruth Irelan Knee

Thank you. Good afternoon to the members of Ruth Irelan Knee's family, friends, and colleagues. Ladies and gentlemen, I will open my remarks with a letter:

Dear Dr. Harper:

Thank you for letting me know that Ruth Knee passed away.  Ruth Knee and I both served on several projects for the Washington National Cathedral. It was in that context 
that I became acquainted with her and learned of her wide interest in civic affairs, her intelligence, and her ability to work with others for the greater good. She had a delightful personality and a high degree of intelligence. She lived her life as we all should-in the service of others and her community. She will be greatly missed and has a place in heaven for all she did on earth.

Sandra Day O’Connor Retired
Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D.C.

Justice O'Connor has aptly and beautifully described our beloved friend, colleague and relative - Ruth Irelan Knee. I will add a few highlights relative to her life
and legacy because at the Cosmos Club you will receive a program and biographical material related to Ruth. I recall Ruth's philosophy and ideology of "love thy neighbor as thy self," and the question is and always will be who thy neighbor is? The answer is and always will be every one under the sound of your voice. Ruth operated on that philosophy, showing love for her family, showing love for her friends and showing love for her professional colleagues.

There are untold Ruth Knee protégés, involved in important work throughout our global world. Individuals who learned from her vast storehouse of knowledge, skills and experiences. She was a stellar performer at the National Institutes of Mental Health and the Public Health Service. There are a number of us in this chapel who bear witness to Ruth's having used her skills to carry out the Medicare and Medicaid legislation, mandated by the congress of the United States, to improve health, mental health and social care for the American citizens.

We bear witness to her work in improving the conditions of psychiatric hospitals, and helping to desegregate them and to protect the civil rights of patients and families.  We bear witness to her using her brilliant mind to conceptualize, design and to plan the implementation of the ombudsman's program for long term care facilities. We bear witness to Ruth's having helped us to provide thousands of training opportunities for physicians, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, nutritionists, pharmacists, activity directors, home health aides, medical directors and administrators in long- term care facilities. Ruth would say that improvements have been made, but our work, commitment and dedication should never cease.  We must continue to be mental health missionaries and cage rattlers.

On October 6th, Ruth and I had our final luncheon. We did some talking, reviewing, reliving, resolving, and returning to God's green earth.  After she decided that she would not be participating in any more public activities, I shared with her our big secret plans for the unveiling of her picture, at the annual meeting of the pioneers on October 25th, as well as Mark Battle's picture. I told her that the presentation was going to be made by Jack Hansan and that the pictures would be placed in the pioneer room at the National Association of Social Workers' headquarters.  She was surprised and pleased.  I then gave her a poem I had written for her. She read it, smiled and said "I will place it right here in the middle of the table."  Life's journey is very interesting and has some strange and significant threads.  On October 27, 1981 I stood in this chapel at the memorial for Junior Knee, the love of Ruth's life, and read a poem I had written for him. Today, exactly some 27 years later, I will share with you, the poem I gave to Ruth.

What’s in a name? Ruth Irelan Knee:

R.  Is for your desire to do what’s right. 
U.  Is for the utilization of your human caring skills.
T.  Represents your trust in your fellow persons. 
H.  Denotes your having a heart of Gold.

I.  Speaks to your interest in people.
R.  Involves running the race with patience.  
E.  Is your enthusiasm for serving others.
L.  Demonstrates love and leadership.
A.  The action oriented mind and skills.
N.  Stands for your natural abilities.

K.  Your kind heart and kingly spirit.
N.  Never taking “no” for an answer when it was not indicated.  
E.  An encourager of others.
E.  Using your energy to make a better health and mental health world for all of us. 

Ruth has earned her right to rest, in peace, in the bosom of God, Our Father.  Good bye my friend.  Farewell to you from your friends. Godspeed, from all of us, on your journey, from here to eternity. 

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.