October 7, 2004
Vol. 24 No. 2

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    Perlman developed ‘Chicago School’ of social service practice

    Helen Harris Perlman, a pioneering figure in social work education, died Saturday, Sept. 18, in her home in Hyde Park. She was 98 years old.

    Perlman, the Samuel Deutsch Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in the School of Social Service Administration, was widely known for her research that integrated diverse concepts from diverging schools of psychoanalytic thought. Her most widely read book, Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process, originally published in 1957, has sold nearly 200,000 copies and has been translated into more than 10 languages.

    In the 1950s, while scholars debated the merits of the Freudian and Rankian schools of thought, Perlman combined her clinical experience and her studies within both camps of psychoanalytical thought to develop the “Chicago School” of social service practice. Her work, and that of her colleagues done in subsequent years, established the Chicago School’s problem-solving approach, an influential approach still practiced today.

    Jeanne Marsh, the George Herbert Jones Professor and Acting Dean of SSA, said Perlman’s theory of practice was a new way of looking at controversial treatment issues, enhanced by a clarity that came from Perlman’s years of direct practice with families and individuals.

    “It wasn’t that she rehashed someone else’s theory—in fact, she was an outcast in some ways because she adhered to neither of the prevailing theories,” Marsh said. “In her lucid writing style, she brought together emerging social-science and psychiatric theories and her own experience into a framework for social work practice.”

    Donald Beless (A.M.,’61, Ph.D.,’71), the former executive director of the Council on Social Work Education and a former student of Perlman, said, “Helen Perlman’s problem-solving process influenced generations of practitioners and educators both nationally and internationally.”

    Perlman graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1926 with a B.A. in English literature. She was told that because she was Jewish, she would not be able to find a job as a professor in the humanities, so she found a job opportunity as a summer caseworker for the Chicago Jewish Social Service Bureau.

    “A whole world opened up to me,” Perlman had recalled. “I had no idea of the kinds of trouble people had. I got a great deal of satisfaction from being able to help people. I found that in many cases, families faced the same kinds of problems and conflicts that one encountered in the great works of literature.”

    She continued working in social work and in 1933, she received one of four Commonwealth Fund scholarships for students at the New York School of Social Work, now affiliated with Columbia University.

    While completing her studies in New York, she was a frequent lecturer on the treatment of social and emotional problems in people’s everyday lives, speaking at the New York School of Social Work and other schools and conferences throughout the United States. Her work experiences gave her a variety of perspectives on social casework as she began developing the conceptual framework for direct-practice social work.

    Perlman also kept up with her love of writing fiction, publishing poetry and stories in newspapers and magazines, including the short story “Twelfth Summer,” published in the 1950s in the New Yorker.

    Perlman earned a M.A. in social work in 1943 from Columbia University and joined the faculty at Chicago in 1945.

    A son, Jonathan Perlman of Stockton, N.J., a daughter-in-law, Frances Perlman, and a grandson, Aaron Perlman, survive her.

    Contributions in memory of Perlman can be made to the Helen Harris Perlman Book Fund at the University Library, 1100 E. 57th St., JRL 180, Chicago, Ill. 60637. More information is at 834-3744.