The Roots of Social Work Education

In 1897, at a conference of Charities and Correction in Toronto, Mary Richmond, delivered a paper titled “The Need for a Training School of Applied Philanthropy”1. In this presentation, she stated that if those doing social work were to become an effective force in the solution of social problems and the development of community organizations, there was a need for an educational system specifically for social workers.

From these beginnings, the professionalization movement gained momentum in the US and Canada, and by 1905, lectures for social workers were under way in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. Several years later, organized social work education began to take place in Canada.

The McGill School of Social Workers

In 1918, the Department of Social Studies and Training, financially supported by the theological colleges, was opened at McGill University.

Photo of 5 women standing in front of McGIll buiding, wearing graduation gowns and holding bouquets of flowers: black and white
Image by McGill Archives PU000752.
McGill School of Social Work Graduating Class of 1930 - McGill Archives

J. Howard T. Falk was recruited to be the director to head this new program.  The curriculum focused on the study of social problems, economic theories of social reform, poverty, and ethics. By 1919, the McGill course calendar read ‘Training School for Social Workers under the Department of Social Service”. This school was the second of its kind to open in Canada, the first being in Toronto in 1914. The School worked closely with the newly created social agencies in the community and offered courses such as, "Social Problems, Methods and Agencies" to address the needs of the community.

The first certificates for a one-year course of lectures were awarded in 1920. By 1923, a two-year diploma was offered. Course work offerings attracted students who were school-teachers, theological students, volunteers in settlements and other agencies, church workers, as well as social workers.

McGill and the formation of the CASW

In 1924, at the National Conference on Social Work in Toronto, Carl A. Dawson, then director of the School of Social Work at McGill, was appointed the chair of the committee to determine the feasibility of a Canadian national social work organization. Many social workers in Canada at the time were members of American organizations. He wrote later that the desire to create a Canadian organization came from the understanding that, “the political and social traditions at the base of Social Work in Canada are sufficiently different to warrant a Canadian conference of social work as distinct from the American conference” (Jennisen & Lundy, 2011, p. 28).

The CASW was formed in 1926.  

The Montreal School of Social Work

In 1933 the economic situation forced the McGill University Board of Governors to close down the School of Social Workers. No sooner had this decision been announced than a group of alumni, along with concerned citizens and agencies, banded together to keep the school afloat. McGill was able to provide office and classroom space; civic-minded lecturers volunteered their teaching services.

The newly formed Montreal School of Social Work hired Dorothy King as its Director. She and her secretary were the only paid staff. Dorothy King was a strong advocate for empowerment of service users, as well as a systemic approach to understanding social issues. On her first day, Dorothy King remarked that she arrived with only "faith and forty cents," the latter being the price of the cab that took her from home to her new office on University Street.

During these years, the Montreal School of Social Work existed on modest fees from its students, donations, and contributions from alumni. It started with nine full-time students, training them in the private social agencies and the government welfare services. These students were able to graduate with two-year diplomas.

The School remained open without the direction of McGill University until 1945, when the university once again took over the School.

The McGill University School of Social Work: The Early Years

In 1945, McGill University took the Montreal School of Social Work back under its direction. Shortly after re-acquiring the School, twelve faculty members began provided graduate level education to students. During this time the school offered courses in six general areas:

  • social case work – including family, child, medical or psychiatric social work;
  • social group work:
  • community organization;
  • public welfare;
  • social administration;
  • research in social work.

A woman holding an award, showing it to the Director of the School of Social work, and another man. Black and white photo, men in suits, woman in dress.
Anselme Cormier and J.O. Moore Being Shown an Award by Dorothy Aikin (B.A, 1930 And Diploma Of Social Work, 1935) - McGill Archives

The first graduate degrees from the McGill School of Social Work were granted in 1950. The students were required to get a general grounding in social work and then specialize in one of these areas.

The 1960's were a time of growth for the School of Social Work: there was a push to develop stronger relationships with field agencies where student placements took place; the School of Social Work professors were being consulted internationally, including Madras, India, as well as maintaining vibrant correspondance with public social services in countries such as Ethiopia, Pakistan, and ; professors were invited to present papers and speaking at conferences across Canada, as well as on CBC radio & televion; and there was active recruitment of recent McGill MSW graduates to organizations in the US. 


Research that faculty were participating in during this period included: issues in adoptive parenting, the welfare and rights of children and mothers, international community development, and the development of low-income housing for disadvantaged populations. 

The McGill University School of Social Work: Today

Today, students can develop foundations of social work at the Bachelor's level, the BSW being added to the program in 1972. Specialization, either in practice or theory, begins at the master's level, and the School of Social Work offers three areas of focus:

  • children and families;
  • health and social care;
  • community and international development.

In conjunction with the Université de Montréal, the school offers a Ph.D Program which provides graduates with the advanced analytic skills necessary to engage in original research and go on to careers in universities, policy development, leadership, and human services management.

In 2014, the School of Social Work began to offer an accredited Master's in Science (Applied) in Couple and Family Therapy program. This program gives students the opportunity to advance their therapy practice within the academic and research context of McGill University, along with the clinical expertise of the Department of Psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital. 


Directors of the School

1918-1922 J. Howard T. Falk

1922-1932 Carl A. Dawson

1933-1950 Dorothy King

1950-1966 John J.O. Moore

1966-1976 David E. Woodworth

1977-1986 Myer Katz

1983-1984 Jane Aronson, Acting

1986-1990 Peter Leonard

1990-1995 Frank McGilly

1995-2002 William Rowe

2002-2005 Estelle Hopmeyer

2005-2014 Wendy Thomson

2014-2023 Nico Trocmé

2023-present Nicole Ives



1. Jennisen, T., Lundy, C. (2011). 100 Years of Social Work History: A History of the Profession in English Canada, 1900-2000. Wilfred Laurier University Press: Canada.Retrieved from http://ow.ly/S3rvc

2. Leigh, D. (1959) A Brief History of the School of Social Work (1918-1959). Available at McGill University Archives. R.G. 66, C. 079, F. 001. Retrieved August 23, 2015.

3. McGill University Archives. Director & Professor Correspondance (1959-1961). R.G. 2, C.254. Retrieved September 10, 2015. 

3. Franklin, D.L. (1986). Mary Richmond and Jane Addams: From Moral Certainty to Rational Inquiry in Social Work Practice. Social Service Review 60(4). 504-525

4. List of Directors. (N.D). McGill University Archives Guide. R.G. 66. Retrieved from:




Back to top