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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Elizabeth Law Watkins Photos
Elizabeth Law Watkins* (1923-2015)

Dr. Elizabeth Law Watkins was on the faculty of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, Case Western Reserve University, serving as Associate Chairperson of the Health Concentration for nine years. Later, during her 13 years as a Professor on the faculty of the Department of Maternal and Child Health, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, she served as interim Chair of the Department for a year. During her time at UNC she was instrumental in establishing a dual degree program between the Schools of Social Work and Public Health. Her consultation was sought by state and public health agencies, federal health programs, schools of public health, and schools of social work.

Dr. Watkins wrote and published materials for public health social work. The primary focus of her research was always in making high quality health services available to minority women and children. Her doctoral research was on the motivation of Afro-American women seeking prenatal care at Boston City Hospital. In North Carolina her research examined issues influencing perinatal outcomes of migrant farm worker women and the growth and development of their infants and children. She developed demonstration projects using lay health advisors to provide continuity of care as the migrant women traveled from state to state. She also studied public health social work practice and its influence on public health programs, services, and outcomes as well as maternal and child health programs and services.

On the national level, Dr. Watkins used her position as President of the Association of Teachers of Maternal and Child Health to develop linkages with NASW, ASTPHSW, APHA and other organizations involved in social work health care issues. She worked in collaboration with the late Mrs. Ruth Irelan Knee, MSW, at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to develop the Coalition of Social Work Organizations in Public Health.

Dr. Watkins received her MSSA from Case Western Reserve University in 1950 and subsequently worked in hospital settings and as the Medical Social Work Consultant in the Anne Arundel County Health Department, Maryland. In 1958 she received her Master's in the Science of Hygiene Degree from the Harvard School of Public Health. She was Assistant Professor, Department of Maternal and Child Health, School of Public Health, University of Michigan until 1962 when she returned to the Harvard School of Public Health to pursue doctoral studies. After receiving her Doctor of Science of Hygiene degree in 1966 she assumed the position of Social Work Specialist in Professional Education in the Medical Social Work Section of the Division of Health Services in the U. S. Children's Bureau, Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In 1969, when the Council on Social Work Education permitted schools of social work curriculum to be oriented toward social problems rather than method of practice, Dr. Watkins joined the faculty of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, which was developing a new curriculum in the health concentration. As Associate Chairman of the Concentration, she was able to incorporate content regarding the public health approach to solving health problems as well as develop field work placements in the new community-based health and mental health clinics and organizations. From 1977 until her retirement in 1989, she was a Professor on the faculty at the School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Watkins was recognized by several organizations. She was the first non-physician to be President of the Association of Teachers of Maternal and Child Health. NASW awarded her the 1987 Distinguished Service Award and the Social Work Section of the American Public Health Association awarded her the 1988 Outstanding Achievement Award. She also was the recipient of NASW's Knee/Wittman Lifetime Achievement Award in Health and Mental Health Practice. Dr. Watkins was a Charter Member of NASW.

Case Western Reserve University students honor 10 NASW Social Work Pioneers®.

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.