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Martin Wolins (1920-1985)

Professor Emeritus

Professor Martin Wolins was born in Odessa, USSR, the elder of two children of Joseph and Menucha Wolyniec. During his infancy the family moved to Pinsk, Poland. There he grew up in an extended family and a multilingual community. He attended Pinsk Commercial High School, but before graduating emigrated alone to the United States in 1938. His emigration was facilitated by a paternal uncle in New York who had anglicized his name, which Wolins adopted. Much interested in animal husbandry, the youth obtained work as a farm hand in rural New Jersey and within several years was a farm manager. Concurrently he took courses at Rutgers University Agricultural College, hoping eventually to become a veterinarian.

In 1945 Wolins was drafted into the Army. About to be admitted into Officers' Candidate School, a physical examination revealed a spot on his lung. He was honorably discharged and sent to a veterans hospital in New York. Released from the hospital in 1946, he married Irene Stern, a nurse from New York, whose family had fled Nazi Germany.

Wolins then passed the New York State Regents examinations qualifying him for college entrance. Unable to get into the veterinary school of his choice, he enrolled instead in Sampson College (New York), where he earned an associate arts degree. In 1948 he transferred to UC Berkeley, to study psychology. In 1950 he graduated with an AB, magna cum laude. Primarily interested in applied psychology, he entered Berkeley's School of Social Welfare, where his analytic and research skills attracted the attention of his mentors.

In 1952, on receiving his MSW, he became director of a study, for the Berkeley Social Welfare Council, to determine the welfare needs in the Berkeley area. It appeared as Welfare Problems and Services in Berkeley (1954). Next, for the New York-based Child Welfare League of America he undertook to construct a novel method, more accurate than any then available, for calculating the unit cost of care in children's institutions. The method he developed was published in Cost Analysis in Children's Welfare Services (with E. Schwartz, 1958). Simultaneously, he began doctoral studies at Columbia University's School of Social Work. There he received the Florina Lasker Award and in 1957 earned the doctorate (DSW).

In 1958 our School of Social Welfare invited Wolins to join its growing faculty. Beginning as lecturer, he soon became associate professor (1959), and then professor (1965). He taught courses in child welfare policy, social organization, institutional care, and social research methods. He was a popular teacher. His lectures, most carefully prepared, were delivered with elan. Toward students he was both demanding and patient. It was at our school that he embarked on the studies that would make him pre-eminent in his profession. His research concern was society's provision for children who lack durable parental care.

The varied studies of Wolins had three foci: (1) Comparing the childcare practices of capitalist, socialist, and communist societies. In this connection, he studied eight countries, employing his considerable linguistic skills. He published his findings in a series of papers, notable among them “Child Care in Cross-Cultural Perspective” (in H. P. Davis, ed., Child Mental Health in International Perspective, 1972). (2) Analyzing the mental process whereby social workers select foster homes for children. Results of these studies appeared as Selecting Foster Parents: The Ideal and the Reality (1963). (3) Rehabilitating the institution. Social workers have regarded the congregate institution as inferior to the foster home for child care. Wolins challenged this professional folk wisdom, insisting that a “good” institution is a valid setting for certain children. Hence he undertook transnational studies to identify the attributes of successful institutions, publishing his findings in Revitalizing Residential Settings (with Y. Wozner, 1982). During his researches he encountered the story of Janusz Korczak, the Polish pediatrician-pedagogue, who founded in Warsaw a children's institution based on self-rule. The Nazis murdered Korczak and 200 of his ghetto wards. Emotionally moved by this, Wolins edited the writings of Korczak (Selected Works of Janusz Korczak, 1977).

Wolins' researches reflect an effort to ground professional practice on solid empirical foundations. He posed hard questions: What are the effects of social work intervention? Are they the intended effects? Can they be measured? These issues he discussed in a chapter-length paper, “Measuring the Effects of Social Work Intervention” (in N. Polansky, ed., Social Work Research, 1960). His publications, in the form of books, articles, monographs, chapters and reviews, number about 50. They earned him an international reputation. His advice became widely sought on issues of child welfare. He served as a consultant to policymaking bodies, technical advisor on studies and a member of editorial boards. He was in constant demand as guest lecturer, discussant and seminar leader.

Wolins was a religious man, an adherent of orthodox Judaism, seeing no contradiction between the latter and his scientific attitude. Perhaps because his family perished in the Holocaust, he identified strongly with the Jewish people. He spent most of his academic leaves in Israel, where he fashioned a parallel career. He was consultant to the Social Welfare Ministry of the State of Israel, conducted studies for Youth Aliyah, taught at the Hebrew University, and assisted in establishing the School of Social Work at the University of Tel Aviv, whose faculty he joined when he retired from Berkeley.

In 1982, upon retiring from the University, the Wolins moved to a house in Jerusalem that he and Irene had been building and furnishing. Several years later cancer felled him; his courageous struggle against the affliction ended in November, 1985. Surviving him are wife Irene, daughters Judy (Mrs. Gorden Brooker) and Sharon (Mrs. David Pohlmann), sons David and Michael, and grandchildren Adam and Tim Brooker and Tamar Wolins.

Wolins was a person of great intellectual integrity. A man of conviction, he held strong beliefs, which he implemented in daily practice. He had enormous energy and capacity for work, and, with his buoyant laugh and quick wit, exuded an enthusiasm for life. The potentials that nature endowed him he used to the fullest. Toward his colleagues he was cooperative; toward his friends, loyal; toward his family, devoted. His life enriched many.