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Gertrude Wilson (1895-1984)

Professor Emerita

After a five-year struggle, Gertrude Wilson succumbed to cancer on December 5, 1984. She was a pioneer in the development of social-group work as a specialty within social work. When few women occupied such positions, she was a full professor in a university of first rank. At Berkeley, she distinguished herself for creative work in professional education.

Gertrude Wilson was born to David and Nora (Dundy) Wilson in Dana, Ill., in a rural area southwest of Chicago. In 1914 she entered Illinois (Women's) College, a small denominational institution in Jacksonville, Illinois, earning an AB in 1918. She then entered the University of Chicago and earned a PhD in 1920. At Chicago she was influenced by philosopher John Dewey and sociologist Robert E. Park. After teaching high school for a couple of years, she left to enter YWCA work. As was the custom then, she pursued further studies intermittently while working. She enrolled first in Columbia University's Sociology Department and later in the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, where she obtained an MA in 1938.

In 1922 Wilson joined the staff of the Young Women's Christian Association, occupying increasingly more responsible positions over the years. Beginning in Allentown (Pennsylvania) as secretary, she went to Buffalo (New York) as program director, and lastly to the Chicago branch as administrator of its program for young women in industry. Grafted onto her sociological training, the YWCA experience shaped her ideas regarding the potentials of the group milieu for problem solving. She became active in the American Association for the Study of Group Work, whose members were trying to formulate the distinctive character and theoretical basis of the emerging practice of social-group work.

During the 1930s, schools of social work introduced social-group work practice into their curricula. Accordingly, in 1935, Wilson was invited, as Assistant Professor to Western Reserve University's School of Applied Social Sciences, to teach social-group work. In 1938 she became Professor, heading the social-group work department of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work. There she remained a dozen years, becoming Associate Dean. There, also, she began writing the books that made her widely known. The first, Case Work and Group Work, appeared in 1942 and earned her an immediate reputation. In 1949 came Social Group Work Practice, co-authored with Gladys Ryland, her colleague at Pittsburgh. Later (1957) she published The Practice of Social Group Work.

When Wilson began writing, social-work practice was dominated by case work, which focused on the intra-psychic problems of individuals and was rooted in psychoanalytic theory. She was among the first to oppose this view, arguing that personal problems originate not only in internal, but also in external, sources. Hence, no single ameliorative method suffices. She advocated an integrated approach wherein both case work and group work form inseparable aspects of the helping process and draw basic concepts from the behavioral sciences as well as from dynamic psychology.

Having reached her mid-fifties with an already outstanding reputation, Gertrude Wilson was ready for a second career. This the School of Social Welfare at Berkeley offered her. She joined our faculty in 1951 as Professor and Director of Social Welfare Extension, charged with the task of developing a professional education program for the professionally untrained social worker.

The post-war increase in California's population was accompanied by a growth in social-service programs, which could not be staffed by the existing supply of professionally educated social workers. Hence, social agencies employed persons with a variety of educational backgrounds, whom they then encouraged to pursue social-welfare-related courses in University Extension. Professor Wilson came up with a better solution. After two years of planning with a broadly representative committee, she initiated the “Certificate Program in the Social Services.” It consisted of four sequential courses extending over two years and culminated in a two-week seminar in residence on the Berkeley campus.

The Certificate Program proved highly successful. During the decade of operation, it enrolled approximately 1,250 workers from a wide spectrum of public and private agencies located in seventeen California counties. Of those enrolled, 300 earned certificates. The Program enabled hundreds of untrained workers to obtain some professional education and brought them closer to our School of Social Welfare and to the social-work profession. Thus, of the 300 certificate holders, a third subsequently went on to obtain professional degrees in graduate schools of social work. Her achievement brought recognition: the California Social Workers Organization gave her its 1963 Annual Achievement Award, and the Council on Social Work Education granted her the prestigious Agnes Van Driel Award for unique and outstanding endeavor in professional social-work education.

At Berkeley Wilson taught a course in social-group-work theory and practice. She is remembered as a demanding and dynamic teacher, enthusiastic and inspirational about social work. Hence, she was in constant demand to lead workshops and to run institutes. She guest-lectured at the Columbia, Smith, and Tulane Schools of Social Work. She served as a consultant to social agencies, schools of social work and professional associations. She conducted nationwide surveys of social work practice. Among the latter were the survey of recreational and groupwork services for the 1950 White House Conference on Children and Youth and the mid-1950s survey of groupwork practice for the National Association of Social Workers.

Wilson wrote dozens of conference papers, journal articles, chapters in books and monographs. But hermagnum opus remains Social Group Work Practice. Reprinted several times, it influenced generations of social-work students and practitioners. The massive green-covered text was affectionately referred to as “The Encyclopedia” or “The Green Bible.”

When she retired in 1963, Gertrude moved to Pioneer, in Amador County, where she immersed herself in community activities. At a dinner tendered her by the Amador County Business and Professional Women's Club to celebrate her eightieth birthday, she was presented with the “Woman of Achievement” award.

She was one human being who made excellent use of the nine decades fate allotted her. Countless people have been her beneficiaries.