Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Jane Addams and Hull House

Jayant Radhakrishnan
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Jane Addams. Nobel Foundation Archive.

Important but undramatic humanitarian initiatives that improved the lives of many are easily forgotten. Such is the case of Jane Addams and the ladies of Hull House, whose efforts had a great impact on the lives of Chicago’s underserved populations.

Jane Addams unquestionably deserved the Nobel Peace Prize she shared with Nicholas Murray Butler in 1931.1 Her commitment to peace was evident from her serving as the chair of the (American) Women’s Peace Party and as president of the International Congress of Women and of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She was also passionate about other issues benefitting women, children, immigrants, and the indigent. While a junior at Rockford Female Seminary, she declared that as women developed their intellect, they would claim the same right to independent thought and action as men.2

Creating a settlement house was possibly her greatest contribution. She learned about the concept in 1887 and was convinced of its value after visiting Toynbee Hall in London. With her partner, Ellen Gates Starr, she obtained a run-down mansion, the Hull House, at 800 South Halstead Street in Chicago in 1889, and made it habitable. She convinced others to contribute financially and it grew into a complex of thirteen buildings. Here the educated and privileged lived amongst the not-so-fortunate people and learned from the largely immigrants surrounding population. This proximity broke down divisions caused by disparities in class, culture, and education. Her opinion about the newly industrialized cities was as follows:

Affairs for the most part are going badly in these great new centres [sic], in which the quickly congregated population has not yet learned to arrange its affairs satisfactorily, insanitary housing, poisonous sewage, contaminated water, infant mortality, the spread of contagion, adulterated food, impure milk, smoke-laden air, ill-ventilated factories, dangerous occupations, juvenile crime, unwholesome crowding, prostitution, and drunkenness are the enemies which the modern city must face and overcome, would it survive.3

Soon, two dozen women resided at Hull House and thousands became regular visitors. It became a center for research and analysis of many social issues and provided educational opportunities as well as a novel art program.

Addams took on many other appointments such as on the Chicago Board of Education and as chair of the School Management Committee. She helped to found the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, was president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, and became a founding member of the American Sociological Society. She founded Traveler’s and Immigrants Aid which later became the Heartland Alliance. Sadly, it is in dire straits now.4 She believed that immigrants would be best assimilated into society if one worked with their children. To that end she established the Juvenile Protective Association. These child protective services were later taken on by the government. In addition to the Chicago Board of Health, she also served as vice president of the Playground Association of America. At that time typhoid fever was rampant in Chicago. Addams and her colleagues demonstrated that the disease affected mainly the poor, because the city bureaucracy was ignoring their health issues. The terrible sanitary conditions in her neighborhood distressed her so much that she even accepted the post of garbage inspector of the nineteenth ward. Interestingly, though she empathized with and worked to help the poor and marginalized, she also believed in eugenics.5

Hull House in the early 20th century. Wikimedia.

She advanced the profession of social work in the country by encouraging young social workers to gain experience and proficiency. Numerous “graduates” of Hull House were motivated to take up public health initiatives that benefited society.

Dr. Harriet Alleyne Rice, the first black woman to graduate from Wellesley College, started her medical studies at the University of Michigan but later graduated from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. American hospitals refused to give her practicing privileges because of her race, so she provided medical treatment for the poor that were served by Hull House. She even provided obstetric services for complicated births that midwives were unable to handle. Later she became the physician at the newly established Chicago Maternity Hospital and Training School for Nursery Maids. Her relationship with Addams was dicey at times but they did work collaboratively. When World War I broke out, the American Red Cross refused to accept her. France, however, was happy to have her treat its soldiers from 1915-1918. The French government recognized her exemplary service with Medaille de Reconnaissance de la Francaise or the Medal of French Gratitude, in 1919.6

Mary Rozet Smith and Addams were partners for thirty years. She financed the Hull House music school. She was also involved with several charities but one of the more important ones was her participation in the Juvenile Protective Association of Chicago, the first of its kind in the United States.7

Julia Clifford Lathrop also had an international impact. As a result of her exemplary work at Hull House, she was appointed in 1890 the first ever female member of the Illinois State Board of Charities. She worked to have the labor market opened to educated women and have women doctors appointed in state hospitals. She was able to stop the practice of employing the mentally disturbed in workhouses. In 1912 she was appointed chief of the newly created national Children’s Bureau and was known as “America’s first official mother”. She encouraged and directed research into infant mortality, child labor, juvenile delinquency, maternal mortality, and even illegitimacy.8 In 1914 she described infant welfare as “a profoundly important public concern which tests the public spirit and the democracy of a community.” While building public support for the agency she very tactfully insisted that motherhood was “the most important calling in the world.” Lathrop battled the powerful health insurance industry and the American Medical Association when they proposed a national health insurance act that would allocate weekly funds to pregnant women because such a legislation in European countries had left many women and their babies uninsured.9 Eventually, in 1921, the first federally funded social welfare system was instituted providing states with federal matching grants for the care of expectant women, new mothers, and children. She helped found the first juvenile court in the country to prevent the incarceration of young children with adults, as well as the national Psychopathic Institute to study the physical and mental health of children. Lathrop represented the United States at an international conference on child welfare in 1918 and in the United Nations child welfare committee in 1925. In 1918 she also consulted in the development of a childcare bureau by the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia.

Alice Hamilton laid the foundation of occupational health and industrial toxicology around the country but it all started at Hull House. After obtaining her medical degree from the University of Michigan she studied bacteriology there. She was then appointed Professor of Pathology at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University in 1897. When this school closed in 1902, she moved to the Memorial Institute of Infectious Diseases and worked with Dr. Ludvig Hektoen. He suggested she study how scarlet fever was transmitted. She determined that it was spread by streptococci expelled in sputum droplets. She also validated Johann von Mickulicz-Radecki’s belief that surgeons should wear masks during surgery to avoid contaminating the wound with their sputum.11 Hamilton lived at Hull House for her entire tenure in Chicago and participated actively in its many activities. She states in her fascinating autobiography that it was due to her close contact with the poor in this period that she observed the harmful health effects on workers in trades that exposed them to lead, carbon monoxide, phosphorous, arsenic, brass, cyanides, turpentine, mercury, and numerous other noxious agents that she had not even considered.12 In 1919 she was the first woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard University, a stronghold of masculinity according to Hamilton herself. Upon her retirement Harvard was obliged to name her emeritus professor.

Some other unknowns from Hull House who had a significant impact on national and international issues are mentioned below.

Florence Moltrop Kelley was a formidable social reformer against wage slavery and helped establish the minimum wage and eight-hour workday. Along with the Abbott sisters she fought against sweat shops and for children’s rights. She was the first general secretary of the National Consumers League and helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.13

Grace and Edith Abbott were sisters who had been influenced by their mother. Grace worked on child labor legislation while Edith advanced social work in the US.

Neva Leona Boyd founded the novel recreational training school at Hull House, where she used improvisation and games to teach language and social skills leading to improvement in self-confidence and in problem-solving abilities.14 These games crossed linguistic, social, and ethnic barriers. She also worked in military convalescent homes to prepare veterans for civilian life after recovery. She inspired Colonel William C. Meninger to set up the Meninger Foundation to treat behavioral disorders and she motivated Viola Spolin’s work in improvisational theater.15 Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, built on this work and developed the Second City in Chicago.

The unrelenting efforts of these and many other ladies of Hull House resulted in improved conditions for children, women and workers that we now take for granted. They have earned the right to be more than a footnote in history.


  1. Jane Addams – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Accessed Apr 4, 2024. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1931/addams/facts/
  2. Addams, Jane. “Bread Givers” (Junior Class Oration). Dailey Register (Rockford April), 1880. https://janeaddams.ramapo.edu/2019/05/cassandra-and-bread-givers-the-college-speeches-of-jane-addams/
  3. Addams, J. Utilization of women in city government. In: Newer Ideals of Peace, chapter VII. New York, Macmillan Company, 1907: 180-208. Accessed April 2, 2024.
  4. Camarillo, E. Heartland’s spinoff setback. Chicago Sun-Times. April 5, 2024.
  5. Kennedy, AC. Eugenics, “Degenerate Girls,” and Social Workers During the Progressive Era. Affilia 23, no. 1 (2008): 22-37. doi:10.1177/0886109907310473
  6. McCarthy, E. Who was Harriet Rice? Jane Addams Hull-House Museum: From the Desk of Jane Addams blog, 2022. Accessed April 5, 2024. https://www.hullhousemuseum.org/hullhouse-blog/2022/9/13/who-was-harriet-rice-zk2lx
  7. Willrich, M. Juvenile Protective Association. Chicago Historical Society Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2005. Accessed April 25, 2024.
  8. Lindenmeyer, K. A right to childhood: The U.S. Children’s Bureau and child welfare, 1912-1946. Urbana and Chicago IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Internet Archive. Accessed April 25, 2024.
  9. Ladd-Taylor, M. Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890-1930. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctv30pnvdb. Accessed 25 Apr. 2024.
  10. Altenbaugh, RJ. Historical Dictionary of American Education. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999: 209. Internet Archive. Accessed April 25, 2024.
  11. Radhakrishnan, J. Use of masks to control the spread of infection: More than a century of confusion. Hektoen International Infectious Diseases, Summer 2020. https://hekint.org/2020/07/30/use-of-masks-to-control-the-spread-of-infection-more-than-a-century-of confusion/
  12. Hamilton, A. Exploring the dangerous trades. The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, MD, Chapter I: Introduction, pp. 3-17, and Chapter VII: The Illinois Survey, pp. 114-26. Boston, MA: Northeastern Press reprint, 1985.
  13. Sklar, KK. Florence Kelley and the nation’s work. The rise of women’s political culture 1830-1900. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. Internet Archive.
    https://archive.org/details/florencekelleyna0000skla_k1e4. Accessed May 1, 2024.
  14. Brooke, SL. Creative art therapies manual: a guide to the history, theoretical approaches, assessment, and work with special populations of art, play, dance, music, drama and poetry therapies. Springfield, IL: Thomas, Charles C., 2006.
  15. Spolin, V. Improvisation for the theater. A handbook of teaching and directing techniques. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press 3rd Edition, 1999.

JAYANT RADHAKRISHNAN, MBBS, MS (Surg), FACS, FAAP, completed a Pediatric Urology Fellowship at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston following a Surgery Residency and Fellowship in Pediatric Surgery at the Cook County Hospital. He returned to the County Hospital and worked as an attending pediatric surgeon and served as the Chief of Pediatric Urology. Later he worked at the University of Illinois, Chicago from where he retired as Professor of Surgery & Urology, and the Chief of Pediatric Surgery & Pediatric Urology. He has been an Emeritus Professor of Surgery and Urology at the University of Illinois since 2000. 

Spring 2024



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