Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge (1866-1948) was a social reformer, social worker, educator, author, editor, public welfare and academic administrator. She was one of the early residents of Hull House, after it was opened to residents (aka social settlers) by the founders Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. She was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to a family noted for its commitment to public service. Her father was a lawyer, a confederate colonel, a US Congressman, and a staunch supporter of women's education. Her great-grandfather was a US Senator and US Attorney General under President Thomas Jefferson. A graduate of Wellesley College in 1888, she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School and was the first woman admitted to the bar in Kentucky. Although she never practised law, Ms. Breckinridge used her legal training to pursue a variety of reform interests, including abused and neglected children, child labor, poor families, development of public welfare administration and advancement of the social work profession.
Breckinridge received a Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago in 1901, and the following year joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (which later became the University of Chicago School of Social Work). She remained on the faculty there until 1942. Other notable faculty colleagues at the time were Edith Abbott, first dean of the School, Edith's sister Grace Abbott, and Julia C. Lathrop, who were also residents of Hull House. Breckinridge served as Dean from 1908 to 1920. At various times, she also served as a Chicago city health] inspector, a probation officer for the Chicago Juvenile Court, a member of the executive committee of the Consumers' League, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as secretary of the Immigrants' Protective League, the American Association of Social Workers (a predecessor to the National Association of Social Workers, President of the Illinois Conference on Social Welfare, organizer and president of the American Association of Schools of Social Work.
Julia Lathrop and Grace Abbott both later moved to Washington, where they served as the first and second directors of the U.S. Children's Bureau and were instrumental in the design, passage and implementation of the Sheppard-Towner Act, a major, but ill-fated piece of national social legislation. Breckinridge is believed to have met Jane Addams and adopted the cause of social work around 1905. This group of women social work faculty members (and Hull House residents) advocated a very different model of social work from the social casework approach of Mary Richmond and the American branch of the charity organization movement. As a group, they placed strong emphasis on understanding social problems, working with, rather than for, those in need, legislative advocacy and “wholesale reform”, and public welfare administration. The adoption of the Sheppard-Towner Act in 1921 was one of the major successes of their approach through the Children's Bureau, although they were unable to repeat their success when that law expired in 1929. Some provisions of the act, however, were later included in Title IV of the Social Security Act when that legislation was drafted under the leadership of Edwin E. Witte and with the involvement of Frances Perkins, Arthur J. Altmeyer, and others in 1935.
From 1907 to the mid-1920s, Dr. Breckinridge lived part of each year at Hull House.