By International Social Service, the Global Social Work Organization
ISS - 100 Years : The story of Mary Hurlbutt (1888-1980)<b>, </b>social worker, immigrants’ rights activist and ISS founder.

The story of Mary Hurlbutt (1888-1980), social worker, immigrants’ rights activist and ISS founder.

Mary E. Hurlbutt, born in 1888 in Greenwich, Connecticut, USA, is renowned for her distinguished career as a social worker and immigrants’ rights activist. Having completed her education at Columbia University’s New York School of Social Work, Hurlbutt furthered her expertise through research ventures in Vienna, London, Paris, and Italy. A devout Christian, she actively engaged with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and swiftly ascended to the roles of Immigration Secretary in 1919 and later as the director of the Immigration Service Bureau in 1922.

Grounded in her social work background and enriched by her international experiences, Hurlbutt developed a profound empathy for immigrants. Witnessing the global upheaval post-World War I, she foresaw the evolving landscape and recognized that traditional immigration standards would become outdated.

“In the old days, immigrants used to settle in a few large cities,” Hurlbutt reflected. “Under the present act, they will tend to be more dispersed, increasing the need for all schools of social work to include in their curricula an understanding of technical and cultural problems.”

Recognizing the necessity for a neutral entity to assist the government in aiding migrants, especially those forcibly displaced by the war, Mary and her colleagues from the YWCA initiated a groundbreaking study. Their central question was, “How far should human suffering be taken into consideration in new migration laws?” Supported by their comprehensive research, these women established the first international organization dedicated entirely to immigration—the International Migration Service, later renamed International Social Service (ISS). Mary, along with her group of pioneering women explorers, laid the foundation for equitable social work across borders, a mission that continues to guide ISS to this day.

Subsequently, Mary Hurlbutt assumed the role of Professor of Social Work at the New York School of Social Work, imparting her invaluable expertise into the curriculum of her alma mater. Her enduring legacy is marked by a commitment to humanitarian principles and a tireless pursuit of justice for migrants.


Hellbaum, Simon. “‚a Friend of Emigrants’. Mary E. Hurlbutt, Eine Pionierin Der Verbindung von Sozialer Arbeit Und Migrationsforschung.” NGHM@UOS, 16 Apr. 2022,

“Migrants En Route Put in Distress by Quota; Countries in Which American Law Has Marooned Them Are Anxious over Social Problems Resulting — Philanthropic Effort to Guard the Children.” The New York Times.

“More Social Work over World Seen; Prof. Mary Hurlbutt, Retiring at New York School, Urges Wider Aid to Migrants.” The New York Times.

ISS, the Global Social Work Organization

ISS is present in more than 120 countries, constituting a well-connected network of NGOs, authorities and private social work practices. The ISS global network is coordinated by the ISS General Secretariat in Geneva.
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