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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Clifford Whittingham Beers
Clifford Whittingham Beers* (1876–1943)

Pioneering Contributions

Clifford Whittingham Beers was the founder of the mental  hygiene movement and what today is Mental Health America (MHA), the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness. With more than 320 affiliates nationwide, Mental Health America works to improve the mental health of all Americans, especially the 54 million individuals with mental disorders.

Career Highlights

In 1900 Beers attempted suicide albeit halfheartedly. After initial hospitalization and an assessment from the family doctor, Beers was hospitalized for most of the following three years at three Connecticut institutions for convalescence, both physical and emotional. Mental illness had occurred in the family before, afflicting Beer's mother and an aunt. The hospital conditions, along with Beers' torments, both mental and physical, are thoroughly documented in his autobiography: A Mind That Found Itself. It was published in 1908 and immediately became a success and translated into several languages.

The occasional acts of kindness or thoughtful care Beers experienced in the institutions were overwhelmed by casual, brutal acts from untrained attendants and punitive rather than therapeutic instructions from heedless physicians. Cursed, spat upon and beaten regularly, Beers and his fellow patients were a ready cash source for the "doctors" who in those days were often just sanitarium owners collecting a weekly rate. Beers even documented the hiring of a tramp as an attendant whose last real job had been working laying track on a railroad crew. After a shower and new set of clothes, the tramp was assigned to supervising patients in a ward the next day.

In 1908 Beers founded the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene. The Society expanded the following year, becoming the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. The Societies, both in Connecticut then nationally, set forth the following goals:

• To improve attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill;

• To improve services for the mentally ill; and,

• To work for the prevention of mental illness and promote mental health.

Clifford Beers brushed aside concerns over the rapid expansion of the two organizations he had founded. There were staff issues at both offices, but he continued to solicit donations from wealthy family friends and the Yale alumni who would still take his calls. Others could walk away, change jobs; but not Beers. Every day he woke up knowing that across the country mental patients were being abused just as he had been. Beatings for petty offenses, spiteful, untrained guards harassing patients too confused to understand simple commands; hospital administrators taking per capita fees and putting patients into overcrowded rooms where they could be easily watched by just a couple of guards with truncheons.

He knew the first thing the new National Committee needed to do: count the number of mentally ill persons institutionalized in the United States, and develop a list of medical professionals to treat them. Thomas Salmon, MD was named the first medical director, a role he would hold for many years. Dr. Samuel Hamilton was in charge of the Society's state surveys and reports on the conditions in institutions across the country, the hammer through which the NCMH would become a national force for reform and an advocate for the mentally ill.

In 1920 the Committee produced a set of model commitment laws that were subsequently incorporated into the statutes of several states. The Committee's studies and reports on mental health, mental illness, and treatment prompted real changes in the mental health care system. With a particular focus on the need to establish comprehensive programs of patient aftercare, these state surveys propelled a number of state institutions to hire social workers for the first time.

The First International Congress for Mental Hygiene in 1930 was, perhaps, the pinnacle of Beers' career. The Congress convened 3,042 officially registered participants from forty-one countries "with many more actually in attendance" for constructive dialogue about fulfilling the mission of the mental health movement. The movement was well established when Beers died July 9,1943.

Biographical Information

Clifford Beers was born in New Haven, CT to Ida (nee Cook) and Robert Beers on March 30, 1876. He was the second youngest of five children. Beers attended local public schools and he dutifully passed his exams, performing at the highest level only when challenged and then reverting to his normal average student status. He graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University in 1897.

For More Information

  • Clifford Beers, A Mind That Found Itself, Pittsburgh and London: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981 ISBN 0-8229-5324-2
  • Clifford Beers, The Aftercare of the Insane, New Haven, CT, Bradley & Scoville, 1909
  • Norman Dain, Clifford W. Beers, advocate for the insane, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980
  • Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 

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.