Jessie Dowling Smith was a Pioneer who worked on the frontiers of social work practice from the years she spent with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Kentucky through her years as Director of Mental Health Services in the New York Regional Office of the Department of Health and Human Services. Her professional career took her to many parts of the country where competence, vision, and friendly leadership were her hallmark.
Her early education was in Ashe County, North Carolina, where she was born, and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She received an AB Degree in 1939 from Berea College in Kentucky where she received the Howard Prize for the outstanding senior woman. In 1945 she received an MSW Degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work. In 1981 she received an award as a Distinguished Alumna of Columbia University.
Beginning in 1939, Jessie served for 3 1/2 years with the Federal Works Progress Administration in Kentucky. During World II she was with the Red Cross in Brooklyn, New York, and New Orleans, Louisiana. From 1946-1956 she served as a Supervisor of Casework in the Outpatient Mental Health Clinics in the Veterans Administration in Huntington, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In 1956 she was commissioned as a Public Health Officer in the U.S. Public Health Service - retiring in 1981 with the rank of Director.
In her early years with PHS, she was assigned for five years as Program Supervisor of Social Work in the recently established Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1961 she transferred to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Regional Office in Chicago, Illinois, as a Program Consultant to local and state mental health programs (both mental hospital and community services) in five Midwestern states. After she was appointed Director of Mental Health Services in the New York Regional Office of the Department of Health and Human Services in 1965, she provided professional consultation to, and supervised, various grant programs within New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. She continued in this position until her retirement in 1981.
Her many professional activities included President of the Washington, D.C. Area Metropolitan Chapter of NASW, member of the Advisory Council of the Columbia University School of Social Work, and President of the Alumni Association of that school. She served on the Editorial Board of Social Casework and published articles in that journal. Beginning with her work as a social worker with the WPA, Jessie worked with programs that were new and developing and ones that were seeking to find solutions to problems of national import to provide help in times of crisis. An outstanding aspect of her years with NIMH was the leadership she gave to local mental health groups along with the state programs, which were established in the 1960s. She did her best to see that the states and localities made appropriate and innovative use of a wide range of resources, and that their services reached across economic, social, ethnic, and racial divisions.
Jessie had two marriages (Louis E. Dowling, 1942-1960 and Foyell P. Smith, 1983-1996). After retirement in 1981, when she remarried, she moved to Lexington, North Carolina, with her second husband, where she was engaged in various volunteer social work and mental health activities, including board membership on the Davidson County Domestic Violence Services and President of the Davidson County Mental Health Board. Upon the death of her second husband, she returned to Washington, D.C. and moved into Thomas House. Jessie was a key member of the NASW Social Work Pioneer® Program and served as chairperson of the NASW Foundation's Legacy Program. Colleagues remember her as a very gracious woman who always had a sparkle in her eye and "called a spade a spade."
Video: Jessie Smith Receives Alumni Medal from Columbia University (April 2011)