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 Ada Cowin
Ruth Ada Cowin* (1911-2005)

Ruth Ada Cowin received her MS Degree in 1934 from Simmons College School of Social Work. She applied her concept of health as a positive state of physical, mental, and social well-being, rather than as the absence of illness or infirmity during a broad career of direct practice with families and individuals, supervision, teaching, and community health development. A wide range of health and mental health settings including Peter Bent Brigham, Salem, and Children's Hospitals; Boston University School of Social Work; and the Harvard University School of Public Health benefitted from her vision and energetic leadership.

In 1968, in the role of Director of Social Service of the Martha Eliot Family Health Center, Cowin was a true pioneer in the neighborhood health center movement in the Boston area. She developed services which community representatives helped to plan and evaluate. She supported training for local residents as community advocates and staff members. As Director of Health and Hospitals of Cambridge, from 1970 to 1976, she promoted the integration of health and mental health services. Cowin had strong conviction that psyche, soma, family, and the community were inseparable. She took a systems approach to practice long before it became popular in the profession.

Cowin combined cause and function, as articulated by Porter Lee, throughout her career. She continued her dedication vigorously in 1993 as Vice President of the Committee to End Homelessness of the Elderly. Against many systems and obstacles, Cowin led this group in the establishment of a permanent residence for elderly homeless women. Because Ruth Cowin, with her wit, forthrightness, and determination was a pioneer, the profession honored her. She received the Massachusetts Social Worker of the Year award when she was in her early 90s and the Knee/Wittman Lifetime Achievement award in 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.