Sarah Henning – ECR Spotlight

Gender and the history of social work education at the University of Edinburgh

My doctoral research examines the careers of three women who ran the social work department at the University of Edinburgh from 1918 to 1968.  While the history of a university department might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’ve found myself becoming fascinated by these women. Their work and the strength of their personalities ensured that social work established itself at the University as a discipline and remains part of it to this day. Gender is interwoven with the development of social work and social work education and my research seeks to explore this relationship and shed new light on an area where little research has been done before.

Social work was one of the few early professions in Britain which was open to middle-class women, and while pay and promotion opportunities were meagre it offered both independence and a career. Yet the very fact that it was a profession dominated by women meant that it faced challenges in the value that society and the academy placed upon it.

Formal training for social workers began in Edinburgh in 1918 following the establishment of the School of Social Study and Training. It was set up by men, primarily Sir Richard Lodge and James Seth – both Professors at the University – and was run ‘under the auspices’ of the University.  It was therefore associated with, but not actually part, of the University – welcomed in but kept outside.  Support from influential men gave the School its initial legitimacy, however its first Director had to assertively advocate for it to be fully accepted into the University.

“It is all too easy to underestimate the enormous determination required on the part of a woman to establish a department in its early years” (University of Edinburgh Journal 1972, p. 75)

These words were written in the obituary of Nora Milnes, the first Director of the School, and later Department of Social Study at the University of Edinburgh from 1918-1951. Her hard work, determination, and commitment to the professionalisation of social work ensured the survival and success of the School in its difficult early years.

Early funding for the School came from subscriptions, the Carnegie Trust, and the Town Council rather than the University. Indeed, the University declined a request for funding from Nora Milnes in 1921, instead offering a room as accommodation for the School. This was to serve as its lecture room, library, reading room, and Director’s office. Nora Milnes wrote of this room that:

“The office could not function while lectures were in progress, and no one could read while others were being instructed, nor while the Director was interviewing intending students, or tapping out letters on a typewriter” (Milnes 1955, p. 47)

Unsatisfied with this arrangement, Nora Milnes continued to work for a more secure relationship with the University. She pushed for the School to be able to offer Postgraduate Diplomas and University Certificates to its students, which the University approved in 1922, after which it began to support the School financially. In 1928 the University agreed to incorporate the School into the University and it became the Department of Social Study.

As well as Nora Milnes, my research examines the careers of Marjorie Brown and Megan Browne, who ran the Department in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m using a collective biography approach, which means I’m examining the women’s biographies looking for overarching narratives and themes which then tell us more about gender in social work education. Not much has been written on the history of social work education, but what has been written generally presents women as occupying lower grade posts within universities, being somewhat docile in character, and being involved with the practical training aspect rather than the academic side of the Departments. However, my research has found that Nora Milnes and Marjorie Brown were dynamic and effective leaders, who undertook social work research, published academic books and papers, and were certainly not shy and retiring types.


My interest in gender in early social work education grew out of a mixture of my own love for history in general (I have an undergraduate MA in History) and being a former student of the Masters in Social Work (MSW) programme at the University of Edinburgh. I feel a particular gratitude to Nora Milnes and the other women who developed and sustained the Department through its first five decades and believe that my training and subsequent career in social work owes a substantial debt to them and the groundwork they laid. By exploring their careers and highlighting their complicated relationship with the academy I hope my research will allow a more nuanced understanding of the role women played in developing social work education, and social work as a profession.

Logo of the Social Work Centenary. More on the project can be found here.


Milnes, N. (1955) ‘James Seth and the Department of Social Study’, University of Edinburgh Journal, pp. 43-53.

University of Edinburgh Journal (1972) ‘Obituary’, University of Edinburgh Journal, pp. 75.

Sarah Henning is a 2nd year (part-time) PhD student in Social Work. She is undertaking an interdisciplinary research project with supervisors from Social Work (Prof. Viv Cree) and History (Prof. Louise Jackson). Sarah recently worked as a Research Assistant on the Wellcome Trust project ‘Advisors, Advocates and Activists: A Century of Social Work in Edinburgh’ to archive the documents of the Social Work Department at the University of Edinburgh. Prior to starting her doctoral studies Sarah worked as a social worker in the Mental Health Team for the City of Edinburgh Council. Her research interests are in the history of women in higher education, the training and role of mental health social workers, and women in social work. Outside of research she enjoys reading, cooking, watching films, and is generally kept busy trying to keep up with her 7-year-old.