NASW Pioneers Biography Index

The National Association of Social Workers Foundation is pleased to present the NASW Social Work Pioneers®. NASW Pioneers are social workers who have explored new territories and built outposts for human services on many frontiers. Some are well known, while others are less famous outside their immediate colleagues, and the region where they live and work. But each one has made an important contribution to the social work profession, and to social policies through service, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration, or legislation.

The NASW Pioneers have paved the way for thousands of other social workers to contribute to the betterment of the human condition; and they are are role models for future generations of social workers. The NASW Foundation has made every effort to provide accurate Pioneer biographies.  Please contact us at to provide missing information, or to correct inaccurate information. It is very important to us to correctly tell these important stories and preserve our history.  

Please note, an asterisk attached to a name reflects Pioneers who have passed away. All NASW Social Work Pioneers® Bios are Copyright © 2021 National Association of Social Workers Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

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Fern L. Chamberlain Photo
Fern L. Chamberlain* (1911-2011)

Fern L. Chamberlain was one of the first professionally trained social workers in South Dakota. She was born in North Dakota on November 26, 1911. Her family moved to South Dakota when she was very young. Her interest in social work was derived from the years of the depression when her family operated a small grocery store in a working class neighborhood in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She saw firsthand the efforts of their customers - friends and neighbors - as they struggled with poverty and hunger.

Fern graduated from Yangton College with a BA Degree and received a MSW from Western Reserve (now Case Western) University in Cleveland, returning to Sioux Falls in 1937 to help the state set up a state public assistance program to receive federal funds for relief. While carrying the title of Chief of Research and Statistics, she served the state department in many ways, filling other roles when needed. In 1966, she left the state department in protest of the negative attitudes prevalent toward welfare and recipients of assistance. Both as a state employee, and later, Fern was an outspoken and courageous advocate for people who were disadvantaged and poor.

After returning to Sioux Falls, Fern was employed part-time by the United Way. In 1974, she established the Community Information Center (now the Helpline). After her retirement in 1980 she actively lobbied state officials and the legislature and wrote frequent letters to the editor pointing out needs and inequities. A longtime friend described Fern as a "quiet radical" who was "fighting the causes long before they were the "in" thing to do. She had a lifetime of working for things that didn't benefit her."

Fern L. Chamberlain Obituary

Newly Inducted NASW Social Work Pioneer Hortense McClinton 2015

Nominate A New NASW Pioneer

Please note, Pioneer nominations made between today’s date through March 31, 2023, will not be reviewed until spring 2023.

Completed NASW Pioneer nominations can be submitted throughout the year and are reviewed at the June Pioneer Steering Committee Meeting. To be considered at the June meeting, submit your nomination package by March 31. To learn more, visit our Pioneer nomination guidelines.

New Pioneers 

Congratulations newly elected Pioneers!  Pioneers will be inducted at the 2023  Annual Program and Luncheon. Full biographies and event details coming soon.