The University of Chicago News Office
Sept. 21, 2004 Press Contact: William Harms
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Helen Harris Perlman, 98

    Print-quality photo: Helen Harris Perlman (1975)
Helen Harris Perlman (1975)

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Helen Harris Perlman, a University of Chicago professor and a pioneering figure in social work education, died Saturday in her home in Hyde Park. She was 98 years old.

Perlman, the Samuel Deutsch Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the School of Social Service Administration, was widely for her work integration of diverse concepts that emerged from diverging schools of psychoanalytic thought. Her most widely read book, Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process, was originally published in 1957 and has sold nearly 200,000 copies. It 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 pulled together her clinical experience and her work studying with experts in both camps to develop the “Chicago School” of social service practice. Her work, together with later work by other colleagues, established the Chicago School’s problem-solving approach, an influential approach used in practice 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, who received an A.M. 1961 and PhD. 1971 from School of Social Service Administration and is former executive director of the Council on Social Work Education and a former student of Helen Perlman, said, “Helen Perlman’s problem solving process influenced generations of practitioners and educators 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,” she 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 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.

She earned her master’s degree in social work in 1943 from Columbia University and joined the faculty at Chicago in 1945.

Shortly after, she began working on Social Casework: A Problem-solving Process. Perlman wrote more than 75 articles and seven other books, including So You Want to Be a Social Worker, Persona: Social Role and Personality and Relationship: The Heart of Helping People, and a memoir entitled Dancing Clock & Other Childhood Memories. She also has edited the book Helping: Charlotte Towle on Social Casework, in which she provided a critical evaluation of essays by Towle, an influential researcher in social work at the University of Chicago.

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.

In honor of her scholarly contributions, SSA established the Helen Harris Perlman Visiting Professorship in the School of Social Service Administration in 1996.

Perlman was active throughout her career in professional and educational circles of social work, serving for many years on the editorial board of the Journal of American Orthopsychiatry. The society awarded Perlman a life membership for her service. She also served on the editorial board of Social Work, the major publication of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and she has served, too, on the curriculum development committee of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). She was named a Pioneer of Social Work Education by CSWE.

She was honored by the NASW, CSWE and the Association of Clinical Social Workers, and she has received honorary degrees from Boston University, the University of Central Florida and her alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

She is survived by her son, Jonathan Perlman, of Stockton, N.J., daughter-in-law, Frances Perlman, and grandson, Aaron Perlman.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, October 2 in Bond Chapel on the University of Chicago campus, 1025 E. 58th St.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in memory of Professor Perlman can be made to the Helen Harris Perlman Book Fund at the University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street, JRL 180, Chicago, IL 60637 For information, call (773) 834-3744.
Last modified at 10:14 AM CST on Wednesday, September 22, 2004.

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