Edith Abbott

Edith Abbott

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Edith Abbott, the sister of Grace Abbott, was born in Grand Island, Nebraska on 26th September, 1876. Both sisters were influenced by their mother's passionate belief in equal rights for women. After graduating from college she worked as a school teacher in Grand Island while continuing her studies at the University of Nebraska.

Abbott moved to Chicago where she became a resident of Hull House and joined other women interested in social reformer such as Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, Mary Kenney, Grace Abbott, Mary McDowell, Alzina Stevens, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton and Sophonisba Breckinridge.

In 1906 Abbott moved to London where she studied at University College and at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where she was influenced by the socialist ideas of Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb.

After returning to the United States Abbott rejoined Sophonisba Breckinridge and over the next few years she become involved in the struggle for women's suffrage and achieving legislation that would protect immigrants, working women and children.

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Abbott also worked with Sophonisba Breckinridge at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. In 1920 it was moved to the University of Chicago and Abbott helped establish it as the country's first university-based school of social work. Four years later she became dean of the school, a post she held for the next eighteen years.

In 1927 Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge established the Social Service Review and was its editor for many years.

Edith Abbott died at Grand Island, Nebraska, on 28th July, 1957.

Hull House and the old West side were full of newly arrived immigrants when Grace and I went to live there in 1908; we seemed to be surrounded by great tenement areas which have now given way to the factories and stores that have come with the business invasion. Chicago at that time was the rushing, growing metropolis of the West, but the crowded streets about Hull House with their strange foreign signs and foreign-looking shops that were often very shabby and untidy seemed strangely unrelated to the great, prosperous city that was called the 'Queen of the West'.

The foreign colonies were well established, and there were Italians in front of us and to the right of us; and to the left a large Greek colony. There was a Bulgarian colony a few blocks west of Halsted Street and along to the north that had almost no women; but large numbers of fine Bulgarian men seemed to have emigrated - and they were pitiful when they were unemployed.

Then you came to the old Ghetto as you followed Hull House a few blocks to the south, where the Maxwell Street Market with its competing pushcarts heaped with shoes, stockings, potatoes, onions, old clothes, new clothes, dishes, pots and pans, and food for the Sunday trade was as picturesque as it was insanitary.

The Greeks were our nearest neighbours, and many of them came to Hull House for classes and clubs. The Greek immigrants at that time were mostly young men working for money to bring over their relatives. The Hull House residents and club leaders organized Greek clubs of various kinds and Greek dances, when there were so few Greek women that the women residents, young and old, were called in to "help the Greeks dance."

Edith Abbott (1876–1957) and Grace Abbott (1878–1939)

Two Midwestern sisters who helped define modern social work.

By Carrie M. Golus, AB&rsquo91, AM&rsquo93

Image courtesy Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

If you&rsquore destitute, it&rsquos at least partly your fault. At the end of the 19th century, that attitude was a common one: people needed charity because of a personal failing.

Edith and Grace Abbott, two early and influential figures in the field of social work, fought against this tendency&mdashstill widespread today&mdashto blame those in need for their own plight. As young women living at Jane Addams&rsquos Hull House settlement, the sisters worked with the massive influx of European immigrants to Chicago. To the Abbotts these people were not inadequate or helpless&mdashsimply discriminated against. The sisters&rsquo solution to the so-called &ldquoimmigrant problem&rdquo was to help the new arrivals help themselves.

Edith Abbott, PhD 1905, went on to become the first dean of the School of Social Service Administration, which celebrates its centenary this year. Grace Abbott, PhM 1909, went to Washington, DC, and the Department of Labor&rsquos Children&rsquos Bureau. Edith was the scholar, Grace the activist and administrator. Yet they worked closely together throughout their careers, and their shared philosophy echoes so strongly through their writings that they often seem to speak with one voice.

That voice ran in the family. The sisters grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska. Their mother, Elizabeth, was a suffragist&mdashwith the full support of their father, Othman, a successful lawyer and the state&rsquos first lieutenant governor. The Abbotts valued education and progress in 1893, despite an economy that brought the family to the brink of bankruptcy, Elizabeth, Edith, and Grace attended the World&rsquos Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Edith&rsquos clearest memory was seeing the beginnings of the University along the Midway.

But Edith had to defer her dream of college, turning instead to one profession wide open to women: teaching. A high-school teacher at age 16, she was expected to cover algebra, geometry, English, history, and Latin with Grace&rsquos help, she crammed furiously the night before each teaching day, later summing up her frustration: &ldquoIt took as much energy to keep from crying as it would have to run a steam engine.&rdquo

As times improved, Edith and Grace both attended college, Edith earning her degree from the University of Nebraska and Grace from Grand Island Baptist College, before graduate study at Chicago, where they chose unlikely subjects for women: Edith economics, Grace law.

Soon after Edith finished her PhD&mdashher dissertation on the wages of unskilled laborers in the United States was published in the Journal of Political Economy&mdashshe won two fellowships that allowed her to do postdoctoral work at the London School of Economics. In London she attended suffragist marches, spent time at an East End settlement house, and took an interest in the people behind the statistics of her earlier research. She also took up smoking.

By 1908 both sisters lived at Hull House. The West Side, Edith recalled, was a &ldquovast city wilderness&rdquo of filthy streets and tenements that were &ldquobeyond description.&rdquo

Edith had given up a job teaching economics at Wellesley College to become assistant director of research at the new Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, reporting to another Hull House resident, Sophonisba Breckenridge, PhD 1901, JD 1904. The school was an untested institution with tenuous financing. But at a time when social work was often poorly planned or simply ineffective, Edith relished the chance to make rigorous research an integral part of social-work education.

Meanwhile, Grace suspended graduate studies to head the newly formed Immigrants&rsquo Protective League, where she tried to prevent unscrupulous employment agencies, banks, lawyers, and landlords from exploiting immigrants. Grace, who had once considered becoming a lawyer like her father, particularly enjoyed appearing before the County Bar Association to try to disbar disreputable lawyers. As unconventional as her sister, Grace toured Europe alone in 1911, hoping to get a clearer understanding of why immigrants would risk so much to come to America. She was deeply impressed by the faith that working-class Europeans professed in the idea that in America, life could be better.

When immigration slowed during World War I Grace took a job with the Children&rsquos Bureau, where she was in charge of enforcing new child-labor laws. The then-controversial legislation was modest by today&rsquos standards: factory workers, for example, had to be at least 14 and could not work more than eight hours a day, six days a week. Southern states in particular fought the laws, and Grace fought just as hard to bring them into compliance. Named bureau head in 1921, she helped administer legislation to reduce infant and maternal mortality&mdashlaws opposed by the American Medical Association, among other groups, because of the fear of socialized medicine.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Edith and Breckenridge helped oversee the Chicago School of Philanthropy&rsquos 1920 transfer to the University. Renamed the School of Social Service Administration, it became the first university-based graduate school of social work. At the time, many universities were hesitant to embrace social work, a field dominated by women, while social workers were skeptical of an academic rather than practical approach. Edith disregarded both criticisms, certain that social work belonged alongside Chicago&rsquos other professional schools of law, medicine, and divinity. President Harry Pratt Judson must have shared her confidence in 1924, after the school&rsquos four-year trial period, Edith became the SSA&rsquos first dean. The curriculum she devised&mdasha broad background in economics, statistics, government, legislation, and history&mdashset the standard for social-work curricula today.

Neither Edith nor Grace married. In an era when family responsibilities made a career almost impossible, many ambitious women had to make a choice. The Abbotts were occasionally mocked for their single status. One senator, arguing against the infant-mortality legislation, ridiculed Grace and the other women of the Children&rsquos Bureau as &ldquofemale celibates&hellipwomen too refined to have a husband.&rdquo He even suggested that a committee of mothers help the &ldquoold maids&rdquo find husbands and have babies of their own. Edith, in fact, actively disapproved of women students who chose to marry, fearing a loss to the profession. In an often-repeated story, Edith gave one student a wedding &ldquogift&rdquo: an enormous pile of statistics to correlate on her honeymoon.

In 1934 Grace resigned from the Children&rsquos Bureau and accepted a less demanding position as professor of public welfare at the SSA. She had long struggled with poor health, twice taking leaves of absence from the Children&rsquos Bureau to recuperate from tuberculosis. She and Edith moved into a large house on Woodlawn Avenue that met her physician&rsquos conditions: close to work and with a screened porch for sleeping.

Addams had hoped that Grace would take over as the head of Hull House Grace, although flattered, declined. She continued to be active in Washington, serving on the President&rsquos Council on Economic Security in 1934 and 1935 as the Social Security Act was being planned.

In 1938 Grace learned that she had multiple myeloma. Cancer was considered such a dread disease that the sisters tried to hide the diagnosis. When she died the next year at age 60, the New York Times listed the cause of death as anemia. Devastated by the loss of her sister and closest colleague, for a long while Edith would not allow anything in Grace&rsquos room to be touched.

Edith retired as dean of the SSA in 1942, though she continued to teach and edit the academic journal Social Service Review. In her old age she moved back to her family home in Grand Island, where she died in 1957.

Together Edith and Grace Abbott made an enormous contribution to establishing the comprehensive social-welfare programs&mdashadministered by trained, competent professionals&mdashthat Americans take for granted today. It was not easy. In a tribute to Grace, Edith recalled her sister telling her students that in social work, the road to success was uphill all the way: &ldquoThe social worker, she thought, should accept this as a way of life.&rdquo

Edith Abbott – pioneering American academic

Edith Abbott, an economist, social worker and women’s equality campaigner, was the first American woman to be appointed the dean of a graduate school in the United States. She had studied at LSE in the early 1900s and was influenced by Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s work in social reform.

Edith Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska in 1876 to Elizabeth Maletta Griffin and Othman Ali Abbott. Her father was lieutenant-governor of Nebraska and her mother was an abolitionist and suffrage leader. Edith, and her sister Grace Abbott, are said to have had their early education in the movement for women’s rights from their mother. Both sisters campaigned strongly for women’s equality throughout their lives. Edith is said to have assisted Susan B Anthony in her national campaign for suffrage.

Edith Abbott. Credit: Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edith_Abbott.jpg

Abbott went to Brownell Hall, a boarding school in Omaha, and after graduating in 1893 started teaching in a school in Grand Island while continuing her studies through correspondence. A couple of years later, she again enrolled for full time study at the University of Chicago, where she received a PhD in Economics in 1905. While in Chicago, she resided at Hull House where she came into touch with some famous women activists and campaigners of the time. Following her studies, Edith moved for a short period of time to Boston where she took up the role of Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. Soon after she was appointed as a researcher at the American Economic Association and was sent to Washington DC to work on an assignment on the industrial history of America for the Carnegie Institution.

It was in 1906 that she received the Carnegie scholarship to attend the London School of Economics and Political Science for post-doctoral study. By that time, economics had clearly become Edith’s area of speciality. In London, she was influenced by Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s study into the causes of poverty and poor law reform. During her stay, Edith also gained experience working at St Hilda’s settlement house in Bethnal Green.

In 1907, she returned to the US to join the Wellesley College as an academician. Within a year, she decided to move back to Hull House as a staff member. Shortly afterwards, she met Sophonisba Breckinridge, the research director of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, and went on to assist Sophonisba in her research. Edith carried out various studies on women working in industries and was published quite often in the Journal of Political Economy.

Over the next few years, Edith participated in the thickening struggle for women’s right to vote which wasn’t granted until 1920. She carried out a statistical analysis of the difference in men’s and women’s voting patterns. Her dedicated involvement in the School of Civics and Philanthropy (which was later renamed School of Social Service Administration in an attempt to professionalise social services) led to her appointment as the School’s Dean in 1924. She was the first woman to be appointed a dean of a graduate school in the US. Edith continued her voracious involvement in social work and reform and founded the Social Service Review which she edited it for many years. She became the President of the National Conference of Social Work and American Association of Schools of Social Work.

Edith also earned an informal place in the inner circle of the Franklin Roosevelt government and helped in drafting the Social Security Act, 1935. She received the Survey Award at the National Conference of Social Work. Edith Abbott died in 1957 leaving behind a legacy of several articles and books, professional education of social work and social welfare and women’s suffrage.

Abbott, Edith

Edith Abbott (1876–1957) was a social worker and educator. She was Dean of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago from 1924 to 1942 and she helped in drafting the Social Security Act of 1935.



Edith Abbott, Dean of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago from 1924 to 1942 , was one of the chief architects of the new model of social work education. Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, the daughter of Elizabeth Griffin Abbott , a high school principal and a women's suffrage leader, and Othman Abbott , first Lieutenant governor of Nebraska. Her sister, Grace Abbott, was born two years later. Edith Abbott graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1901 , received her PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in 1905 , and studied at the London School of Economics. In 1908 , after teaching economics at Wellesley, she became assistant director of the research department of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (later incorporated as part of the University of Chicago).

Abbott emphasized the state's responsibility in social problems, the importance of public welfare administration, the social aspects of legislation, and the need for a more humane social welfare system. She was president of the National Conference of Social Work and the American Association of Schools of Social Work and was a founder of and frequent contributor to the Social Service Review . Abbott helped in establishing the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare in 1926 and in drafting the Social Security Act of 1935 . At the 1951 National Conference of Social Work, accepting an award for her contributions to social work, she gave a fiery speech demanding abolishment of means tests and establishment of children's allowances. Her books include Immigration: Selected Documents and Case Records (1924), The Tenements of Chicago, 1908–1935 ( 1936 ), Public Assistance ( 1941 ), and Social Welfare and Professional Education ( 1942 ). See also Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott (1983), by Lela B. Costin .

How Did Edith Abbott Come to Write about Crime Statistics in 1915? Part 1

Edith Abbott was an economist, sociologist, social worker, and statistician in the early part of the twentieth century who contributed to so many areas it’s difficult to list them all. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement, advocated for child labor laws, worked with Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security on drafting what would become the Social Security Act of 1935, and pioneered the development of Social Work as a profession. She co-founded the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and in 1924 became its dean — in fact, she was the first woman to be dean of a graduate school in the United States.

What is less well known is that Abbott was also a pioneer in applying statistical reasoning to social problems. In 1915 she wrote a groundbreaking report called Statistics Relating to Crime in Chicago that set a standard for future work in crime statistics — and indeed for statistical work in general — and outlined the main themes that would be studied in later decades.

Why did the Chicago City Council choose Abbott to investigate the statistics on amount of crime in the city and characteristics of the criminals? I researched the background of this choice for an interview that will be airing with the BBC, and found that the story involves sensationalist newspaper coverage, women’s suffrage, the progressive movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the foundations of the discipline of statistics.

A “Crime Wave” in Chicago

In the spring of 1914, there was a crime wave in Chicago. Or, I should say, there was a perception of a crime wave in Chicago. It was hard to tell whether there was a real increase in crime or not. Most impressions about crime came from the news stories of the day, and sensationalist stories about crime and crime waves sold papers in the fiercely competitive newspaper market. Although politicians and newspaper stories occasionally reported crime statistics, they almost never said where those statistics came from. There were glaring inconsistencies among the different figures, even for counting murders.

On May 18, 1914, Charles Merriam, an alderman on the Chicago City Council, introduced a resolution to have a committee investigate and report “upon the frequency of murder, assault, burglary, robbery, theft and like crimes in Chicago upon the official disposition of such cases upon the causes of the prevalence of such crimes and upon the best practical methods of preventing these crimes." Merriam, who was also a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, chaired the committee. Merriam had little background in math and statistics himself, but he knew someone who did: his colleague Edith Abbott.

By 1914, Abbott had published more than 25 books and articles on women and children in the labor force, the juvenile court system, housing conditions in Chicago, and various other topics, and most of these publications contained statistical analyses. She was also teaching statistical methods in her classes on methods of social investigation at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and the University of Chicago.

Abbott’s Background in Statistics

I don’t think Merriam could have found anyone in the United States in 1914 who had a better background for assembling and interpreting crime statistics. Abbott’s father was a Civil War veteran and lawyer her mother was a former high school principal who strongly believed in education for women. Both sides of her family had been abolitionists and supporters of women’s suffrage. Abbott later said that she had been born believing in women’s rights.

At age 16, after her family experienced financial setbacks following bank failures in the summer of 1893, Abbott began teaching school in her hometown of Grand Island, Nebraska at a salary of $15 per month. The subjects she taught included English, History, Latin, Algebra, and Geometry. While teaching she took correspondence classes from the University of Nebraska and, after using her savings to enroll full time, earned her undergraduate degree in 1901.

After earning a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in 1905, Abbott spent a year as secretary for the Women’s Trade Union League in Boston and as a researcher on “wages and prices” and “women’s work” for a project on the industrial history of the United States undertaken by the American Economic Association and Carroll Wright. Wright had been the first U.S. Commissioner of Labor, whose role was “to acquire and diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with labor” — that is, to collect and disseminate labor statistics — and “lent the prestige of his rare personality and achievements as statistician to the office of president” of the American Statistical Association. Abbott thus became acquainted with some of the leading statisticians in the United States.

The Carnegie Institution was so impressed with Abbott’s research that they offered her a full-time research position at a salary of $100 per month — quite an increase from her earlier salary as a teacher in Grand Island (for context, Abbott, in her 1910 book Women in Industry, had documented the median wage for cigarmakers in 1900 as $11.50 per week for men and $5.50 per week for women Abbott’s salary from Carnegie was in line with that for assistant professors at the time). With Carnegie funds and a Foreign Fellowship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, she embarked in 1906 on a year of post-doctoral study in London.

In 1906, London may have been the best place in the world to learn about the latest developments in the relatively new discipline of statistics. Karl Pearson, known today to Statistics 101 students everywhere through Pearson’s chi-squared test and Pearson’s correlation coefficient, was at University College London. The London School of Economics was home to Beatrice and Sidney Webb, whose course on “Methods of Social Investigation” — including methods of statistics — inspired Abbott’s later classes on the subject.

Abbott also learned about the statistical methods of London School of Economics faculty member Arthur Bowley, whose 1901 book Elements of Statistics is thought to be the first English-language textbook on statistics. In 1906 Bowley had just proposed in his address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science that random sampling methods should be used — a milestone in the history of survey sampling. Bowley also emphasized investigating the quality of the data, writing: “We must candidly accept the fact that our raw material is imperfect, and our business is to remove the imperfections as far as we can, and, above all, to measure those we cannot remove.” This became one of the themes of Abbott’s statistical work.

Residence in Hull House

In addition to having academic training in statistics, Abbott lived at Hull House, the settlement house that Jane Addams had co-established in 1889 to promote social welfare in Chicago. It was called a settlement house because people interested in social work lived, or “settled,” in the community they served. Hull House was in a working-class neighborhood heavily populated by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe the residents of the house set up educational programs and day care centers, and worked with their neighbors to improve living and working conditions.

Hull House was the place to be in early twentieth-century Chicago if you were interested in progressive causes or in social research. Every evening the residents would dine together and discuss the issues of the day visitors to Hull House included W. L. Mackenzie King, Clarence Darrow, Frank Lloyd Wright, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Theodore Roosevelt. Edith Abbott later wrote: “Jane Addams and Hull House were almost magic words at that time…. Hull House was known because Miss Addams had made it a beautiful place for people who lived in an area of the city where nothing else was beautiful and where she had brought together a group of men and women to live and work with her not as a charity but in a friendly way in one of the tenement neighborhoods of the great city.”

And Hull House had a long tradition of quantitative research, which included the landmark 1895 contribution to statistical mapping, Hull House Maps and Papers. In their ongoing research, residents of Hull House would look at a specific problem in the neighborhood, gather data about it, and then propose policies for action based on those data.

The combination of academic training, previous research on using statistics to explore the condition of women in industry and children in the juvenile court system, and practical experience of collecting data as a resident of Hull House gave Edith Abbott a background in statistics that was likely unmatched in the United States in 1914.

Edith Abbott - History

Edith Abbott was among the most important Americans who were involved in the establishment of social work as a profession–a profession akin to those of law, medicine, and theology, requiring not merely the "good intentions" of its practitioners but a scrupulous intellectual education and a rigorous practical training. As the first woman to become the dean of a major American university graduate school (University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration), Abbott prepared several generations of social servants to assume what she called "the grave responsibility of interfering with the lives of human beings."

Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, on September 26, 1876. She grew up in a family of social activists that included her younger sister (and lifelong professional colleague), Grace Abbott, the great American champion of children's rights. Edith and Grace Abbott were the daughters of Elizabeth Griffen, an early leader of the Nebraska suffrage movement, and of O. A. Abbott, a pioneer lawyer who was the first lieutenant governor of Nebraska. Describing the sisters' unusual upbringing amid family guests such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, Edith Abbott later said, "We were brought up to stand by our guns, popular or not–and if unpopular, so much the better!"

In 1906 Edith Abbott, having earned a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago, was awarded a trip to England, where she lived in a settlement house and came into contact with the famed socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb of the Fabian Society. Abbott's successful studies in London led to a teaching post at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, soon thereafter, the opportunity to return to Chicago to become a resident of Jane Addams's Hull House.

Edith Abbott's first book, the influential Women in Industry , was published in 1910. It was at about this same time that she joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. She was a key figure in the 1920 effort to move this institution of social work training to the University of Chicago, where it was renamed the School of Social Service Administration ( SSA ). Abbott thereafter led the ssa to become one of the first programs of social work–perhaps the very first– at a great American university. She became dean of the school in 1924.

For many years, through the Great Depression, Edith Abbott worked closely with her sister, Grace (then the highest-ranking woman in the federal government), to combat a wide array of social ills. It was through their joint efforts that many early forms of social welfare, some of which have been credited with leading to the New Deal programs that helped end the Great Depression, were begun. The Abbott sisters formed a complementary team, with each providing an invaluable and unique service. As Edith Abbott put it, "I could assemble the facts and write a report, but Grace had the gift of applying the proper legislative remedy."

Edith Abbott continued to publish important books on immigration, the tenements of Chicago, American pioneers in social welfare, and the philosophy of social welfare education. She was the cofounder in 1927 of the publication Social Service Review and was also its longtime editor she was named president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work from 1925 to 1927 she was appointed to the Wickersham Commission (the National Committee on Law Enforcement and Observance) in the late 1920s and she was the president of the National Conference of Social Work in 1937.

In 1942 Abbott retired from her position as dean of the ssa. She served as dean emeritus and continued teaching until 1952, when she returned to her hometown, where she died on July 29, 1957.

At the time of Edith Abbott's death, Wayne McMillen of Social Service Review wrote, "History will include her name among the handful of leaders who have made enduring contributions to the field of education. Social work has now taken its place as an established profession. She more than any other one person gave direction to the education required for that profession. Posterity will not forget achievements such as these."

What was Special about Edith Abbott's Crime Statistics Reports? Part 2

Part 1 of this series described Edith Abbott’s unusually strong academic and practical background in statistics, which gave her the experience and training to write her 1915 report Statistics Relating to Crime in Chicago. In this part, I’ll discuss some of the features that make that report, and a follow-up she published in 1922 titled Recent statistics relating to crime in Chicago, resonate with a statistician in 2019.

Abbott studied topics in crime statistics that were less common in other reports, such as homicides by police, and persons detained because they could not pay bail. What struck me about her work, however, is how modern her approach to statistics was. Anyone can calculate an average or a percentage from a data set. But the essence of the discipline of statistics is providing an assessment of the accuracy and applicability of those statistics. How valid are they, and to what populations do they apply? Abbott focused on those aspects of the statistics, and her approach to collecting and evaluating statistics presaged current topics of statistical research.

Abbott’s Approach to Statistical Investigation

Abbott assembled published statistics about crime from the police department, the municipal court system, the adult probation office, and the House of Correction (city jail). She also gathered unpublished statistics on criminal complaints — which were supposed to include crimes for which no one was arrested as well as crimes resulting in an arrest — from the police department.

She investigated the quality of the data sources by comparing the statistics from one data source to those from others. She found, for example, that some types of crime had five times as many arrests as criminal complaints, when one would expect fewer arrests than criminal complaints because for many crimes no one is arrested. She therefore concluded that the data on crimes known to the police were unreliable.

Abbott knew that even reliable statistics on criminal complaints would not provide a complete picture of crime because “much crime is undetected,” but argued that records of crime known to the police would provide better information than the numbers of arrests and convictions. An increase in the number of arrests did not necessarily mean that crime was increasing but “may merely indicate greater activity on the part of the police” or may be “merely pseudo-activity resulting in the arrest of large numbers of innocent persons.”

Because she had no trustworthy information on crimes known to the police, she was forced to rely on statistics about arrests. But she repeatedly emphasized that one could not necessarily conclude that crime had increased from an increased number of arrests:

From the statistics that have been given, it appears that there was in the year 1913 … an unmistakably large increase in the number of arrests. If the number of arrests indicates the extent of crime, then there was obviously a very marked increase in crime in the year 1913. If the figures as to the relation between arrests and population are to be trusted, the year 1913 would popularly be called a serious “crime year” that put our crime-rate back more than a decade. It is very important therefore to note that the number of arrests is not synonymous with the number of crimes … (Abbott, 1915, p. 22).

Collecting statistics on the number of crimes known to law enforcement agencies became, in the 1920s, a primary reason for launching the Uniform Crime Reporting System, which today is one of the major sources of information about crime in the United States. Despite her experience in conducting surveys of Chicago residents, Abbott did not appear to suggest what was to be the next development for measuring crime: asking people directly about victimizations (both known and unknown to the police) they have experienced. Then again, no one was using surveys for government statistics on any subject at that time so it is not surprising that Abbott did not suggest a crime survey the United States government did not start measuring crime through surveys until 1973.

Abbott didn’t just take the data that were given to her and unquestioningly tabulate the results. She evaluated the fitness of each source of data for answering questions about crime, and if no adequate data source existed (which was usually the case), she described what kind of data collection should be done. For example, Abbott discovered that Chicago in 1915 did not keep track of prior convictions. She recommended that all persons convicted of crimes be fingerprinted and photographed (not just the persons who could not post bail) so that judges could distinguish first-time from repeat offenders.

Because of her comprehensive and multiple-data-source approach to the statistics, Abbott identified numerous areas in which police resources could be used more efficiently. She found, for example, that fewer than 15% of arrests were for felonies. The remainder were for crimes such as disorderly conduct and petty offenses. At the same time, more than 60% of the felony charges were discharged in preliminary hearings. Abbott concluded that either a large number of innocent people are arrested, or “a large number of persons who are legitimately arrested and who should be convicted are being released because of some defect in our prosecuting machinery. Whether this defect is to be attributed to the police, the courts, the Grand Jury, or the State’s Attorney’s office, is not within the province of this discussion” (p. 31). She also reported that more than 80% of the commitments to the House of Correction were for non-payment of fines: Chicago was paying 46 cents per day to incarcerate persons who typically owed less than 20 dollars. Abbott suggested it would be more cost-effective to allow persons owing small fines to pay by installment while on probation. The City Council Committee concluded from Abbott’s statistics that the “present machinery catches poor, petty and occasional criminals, and punishes them severely, but fails signally to suppress the professional criminal.”

Statistical Reasoning Principles in Abbott’s Crime Statistics Reports

For each statistical table, Abbott carefully documented (1) where the data came from, (2) how the statistics were calculated, (3) how accurate those statistics were likely to be, and (4) how the system could be changed to give better statistics.

The statistical issues and principles she addressed continue to be relevant today.

Counting rules and definitions matter. Abbott compared Chicago’s felony arrest rates to those of New York and London, but said that comparisons for many crimes were not valid because the definitions of those crimes differed. She asked “When is a murder a murder?”

Crime definitions and counting rules differ among sources of crime data in the United States (the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, local police statistics, homicide information from death certificates, data from surveys such as the National Crime Victimization Survey). All of these differ from definitions used in other countries and those proposed by the United Nations. This is a major challenge for comparisons.

Always give the source of a statistic. How many times have you read a statistic in a newspaper or on a website, and wondered “Where did that come from?” So did Abbott. She commented in her 1922 report on the murder statistics reported by the Chicago “Crime Commission,” (Abbott made her opinion of the organization clear by putting its name in quotes), which had claimed that its activities were responsible for a decrease in crime from 1919 to 1920. But Abbott noted that the murder statistics cited by the Commision were wildly out of line with those from the police department and wrote: “The source of these extraordinary statistics is not given by the ‘Commission.’”

Multiple data sources are needed to study crime. In addition to using the multiple data sources to evaluate the quality of different statistics, Abbott wove the sources together to form a mosaic picture of crime in Chicago. Combining information from different data sources is a focus for statistical research in 2019. More data about more topics are available than ever before, but some data sources are more reliable for a particular purpose than others.

Use an appropriate statistic to answer a question. This seems obvious, but choosing an appropriate statistic can be the most challenging part of an investigation, and often a “convenient” statistic does not answer the question of interest.

One of the “hot topics” for research in the 1900s was the relationship between immigration and crime. Newspaper reports often ascribed “crime waves” to recent immigrant groups in a city. Volume 36 of the 1911 Congressional Dillingham Commission report on immigration asked: “Is the volume of crime in the United States augmented by the presence among us of the immigrant and his offspring?” Chapter 9 of this report presented statistics from 1905-1908 Chicago police data on the percentage of arrests for different types of offenses by nativity and within each nationality group. They reported, for example, that 4.6% of all arrests of native-born persons were for violent offenses, and that 7.4% of all arrests of foreign-born persons were for violent offenses. But these statistics, even if accurate and even if arrests were proportional to the number of crimes committed, did not answer the question posed by the commission. The foreign-born might have had a higher percentage of arrests for violent offenses and yet lower rates of crime for all crime categories. It depends on how many native- and foreign-born persons were living in Chicago at the time.

Abbott compared the percentage of arrests and convictions for native- and foreign-born men from the Chicago police data with the population percentages from the 1910 U.S. census. By relying on multiple data sources, she was able to calculate that while the foreign-born accounted for 54% of Chicago men age 21 and over (according to the census), they accounted for only 36% of the arrests and 35% of the convictions, and concluded that the “various foreign groups show almost uniformly a smaller percentage of convictions than their proportion of the population entitles them to have.”

Although Abbott would have known about the “advanced” statistical methods of regression and correlation, she did not use them in her report. And, for the most part, she did not need to. Her statistical tables gave the requisite information and were easy for her readers to understand. There is no reason to use a complicated analysis when a simpler one will answer the questions.

Missing data and measurement errors affect all statistics, even those from a census. Abbott documented deficiencies of the data she had obtained, and all of her conclusions were conditional on the quality of the available data. Her conclusions about immigration, for example, acknowledged the poor quality of the police department’s information on nativity and nationality. She wrote: “When the police are asked, ‘What nationality is the prisoner?’ in order that the right kind of interpreter may be sent, the answer is likely to be, ‘We don't know what nationality he is. He can't speak anything that anyone here can understand.’ It is safe to say that in such cases the ‘nationality’ of the immigrant is not likely to get into the record correctly.”

In other statistical work, Abbott stated that her conclusions depended on assumptions made about the nature of missing data. In Women in Industry, for example, she wrote that even though many establishments failed to report the number of women employees, one could still estimate the percentage of women among employees by assuming that the percentage of women is “much the same in the establishments that do not report as in those that do.” In fact, she argued that estimates of the percentage of employees that are women were likely to be too low because the employees of companies that failed to provide breakdowns by gender would “invariably be entered as ‘men employed’.”

The Uniform Crime Reports have missing data (from nonreporting law enforcement agencies as well as from crimes that are not reported to or recorded by the police) and measurement error (from misclassifying types of crime or misrecording characteristics of victims or offenders). How much do these affect the statistics?

Collect data in such a way that the analysis will be easy and clear. Throughout her report, Abbott suggested improvements for the data collection methods. If you have good procedures for collecting data, you often don’t need hugely complicated statistical methods to obtain the results. She also, by the example of her crime report and all her statistical work, emphasized that each step of the process needs to be transparent and defensible. She presented the tables of statistics, told where they came from and how she did the calculations, interpreted them, and then wove them into a memorable narrative.


Dean Edith Abbott was fond of saying “We of the West are not afraid of crossing the frontiers.” This pioneering spirit drove the choices she made in life and led her to change the course of contemporary education history.

Miss Abbott was born to a family of activists in Grand Island, Nebraska, in the shadow of the Overland Trail. Her father, fresh from the Union army, served as the fledgling state’s first lieutenant-governor. Her mother, a Quaker originally from northwestern Illinois, participated in the Underground Railroad and the women’s suffrage movement.

After completing her undergraduate education at the University of Nebraska, Miss Abbott attended the University of Chicago, receiving a Ph.D. in economics in 1905. Through a Carnegie Fellowship, she continued her education at the London School of Economics, where she learned from and befriended social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb. By 1907 she was back in the States, teaching at Wellesley College, when she was offered the opportunity to become assistant director of the School of Civics and Philanthropy in Chicago.

Back in Chicago, she found herself in a uniquely inspiring environment, which would prove conducive to her future accomplishments. At the School of Civics and Philanthropy, she worked alongside Graham Taylor and Sophonsiba Breckenridge, as director and head of research, respectively. Residing at Hull House, she was surrounded by the “Great Ladies of Halsted Street”—Jane Addams, Alice Hamilton, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, and her own sister, Grace Abbott.

From the beginning, she was adamant that social work education should be conducted at the graduate level, under the sponsorship of a university. At the time, her views were considered idealistic and impractical, if not downright subversive. Nevertheless, Miss Abbott held firm in her belief. “Social work will never become a profession—except through the professional schools,” she said. “A good professional school of social welfare not only needs a close connection with a good university but the modern university also needs such a school.” Her work paved the way for the School's merger into the University of Chicago, and in 1924, she became its dean—the first female dean of any graduate school in the United States.

Her impact on curriculum-building in the field was just as revolutionary. She was years ahead of her time in understanding that, to be effective as future administrators, her students needed to learn more than just casework. They would require an understanding of legal concepts, the social implications of medical problems, and the fields of public social service, social research, and social administration. As a result, such courses as “The Child and the State,” “Social Work and the Courts,” and “Methods of Social Investigation” were offered at the Chicago School long before they were introduced at other institutions.

In light of her academic orientation, some conjectured that Miss Abbott was disinterested in casework. To the contrary, her aim was to prepare students for casework practice by providing them with the intellectual scaffolding they would need to be most effective. Charlotte Towle later summarized Miss Abbott’s unique perspective on casework: “She made the means test, legal settlement, relative support laws, and similar restrictive statutory and administrative practices come alive for me in terms of what they were doing to people psychologically. This theme, which I developed in Common Human Needs, I owe to a new dimension in my thinking derived from Miss Abbott rather than from my training as a psychiatric social worker.”

Miss Abbott was herself a devoted, if demanding and, at times, intimidating, teacher. She often borrowed a quote from Beatrice Webb: “I sometimes break appointments with others, but never with students for students are really important.”

During her deanship, Miss Abbott and SSA were deeply involved with national policy in such areas as immigration, labor, and child welfare. Her sister, Grace Abbott, served as chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau from 1921 to 1934 and saw to it that policy-makers in these arenas included the research being done at SSA. Edith Abbott's own greatest contribution to public policy was in the area of social security legislation. Her book, Public Assistance - American Principles and Policies, was the product of many years of research and teaching.

Miss Abbott retired in 1942 and spent the last years of her life at the family home in Grand Island, Nebraska. Abbott Sisters Day has been celebrated on March 20th throughout her home city and state since 2002.

From the beginning, she was adamant that social work education should be conducted at the graduate level, under the sponsorship of a university.

Edith Abbott (1860-1952)

When we ran the ‘Inspiring Women’ of Tunbridge Wells project in 2013, we included some biographies on the website (which can be seen here). At the time there were several more women we would have liked to have included had there been enough time and enough information on them to hand.

One of these was Edith Abbott. Although not a leading player in Tunbridge Wells’ suffrage movement, Abbott made her mark locally through her support for and involvement in socialist movements and her leadership of the local Women’s Co-operative Guild (WCG). In the latter organisation she even had something of a national profile.

Edith Robinson was the eldest child of Henry Peach Robinson, a pioneer in the photographic business, and his wife, Selina, who was also a photographer. She was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, but by 1871 the family had moved to a different spa town, Tunbridge Wells. Artistic like her parents, Edith grew up to be an art teacher: at some stage she taught art at the Tunbridge Wells Girls High School and after her marriage taught drawing at the town’s technical institute.

In 1892 she married George Abbott, another leading citizen of her adopted town. George was quite a bit older than Edith. He was already in his late forties when they wed and had been married before: in the 1891 census he is recorded as a widower. George came from humble origins in Nottinghamshire, but had qualified as a medical doctor and practiced as an ophthalmic surgeon. Among the causes he passionately promoted were the technical institute and the town’s museum (he was very interested in geology). In its report of the couple’s wedding, the Kent and Sussex Courier (23 April 1892) commented that ‘the bridegroom is known in the town for his indefatigable labours in connection with the Eye and Ear hospital’. In 1890 he instituted technical classes in the basement of his dispensary on the Pantiles. George was also active in local politics and was elected to the Tunbridge Wells council in 1898 (Courier, 16 Jan. 1925). George and Edith had no children together, but the 1911 census records an adopted son of Italian birth.

As a councillor, George Abbott was known as a ‘progressive’, which means that he was broadly left-liberal in politics. Julian Wilson’s recent research on Revolutionary Tunbridge Wells reveals that Mr Abbott co-operated with socialist forces on the Council, supporting, for example, a campaign in favour of municipal housing (Wilson, 147-8). George’s will was said to contain an astonishing diatribe against ‘stingy’ and ‘pennywise, pound foolish’ councillors and town clerks, on account of a generous donation that he wished to make for a museum having been allegedly rejected (Courier, 16 Jan. 1925).

Edith’s politics were not dissimilar. Although originally a member of Tunbridge Wells’ Women’s Liberal Association, by the First World War she was more closely identified with the labour movement. She was certainly a part of the town’s women’s movement, being an active member of the local branch of the National Union of Women Workers, established by Amelia Scott in 1895. Although she doesn’t seem to have held office in the local suffrage society, Edith Abbott was undoubtedly not only a suffrage supporter but also a believer in the necessity for women to become more involved in public life. On many occasions she spoke out in favour of the election of women as poor law guardians, councillors and to hospital boards etc. and repeatedly urged the (mainly working-class) WCG members to stand (for example in Women’s Penny Paper, 25 Mar. 1897). She followed her own advice when she became a member of Tunbridge Wells’ Education Committee, from which she retired in 1921 after ‘long service’ (Courier, 30 September 1921). After the First World War she was an enthusiastic supporter of Scott’s campaign for a maternity home and personally guaranteed the overdraft required to secure the home’s first premises in Upper Grosvenor Road (ibid. 26 Sept. 1924).

Edith Abbott also became very interested in the co-operative movement, and served as secretary of the local co-operative society and was president of the Tunbridge Wells WCG from 1892. This must have brought her closer to the town’s socialist movement. In the First World War she publicly supported local conscientious objectors (as did the Liberal Quaker, Sarah Candler) and she presided over many meetings with Labour Party speakers. In 1918 she became a member of the Tunbridge Wells provisional committee of the Labour Party (Advertiser, 15 Nov. 1918). She also spoke at many national meetings of the WCG, giving a talk in 1914 with the – perhaps rather dull but worthy – title, ‘On Reading Balance Sheets’.

After George’s death, Edith continued to support her late husband’s work for museums and the South-East Union of Scientific Societies. When Tunbridge Wells Museum opened at new premises at 12 Mount Ephraim in 1934, she was pictured at the opening ceremony (above, third from left), standing next to Amelia Scott, another strong supporter of municipal facilities such as libraries and museums. Edith died in 1952 at the age of 92: coincidentally she was born and died in the same years as her comrade in the Tunbridge Wells women’s movement, Amelia Scott.

Thanks to Ian Beavis, Julian Wilson and Alison Sandford MacKenzie.

Census, birth, death and baptism records via Find My Past

Tunbridge Wells Advertiser

J. Wilson, (2018) Revolutionary Tunbridge Wells (published by the Royal Tunbridge Wells Civic Society).

Watch the video: Edith Abbott and Grace Abbott