Julia Clifford Lathrop

Julia Clifford Lathrop


Julia Clifford Lathrop was an advocate and reformer for immigrants, children, and the mentally ill. Born in Rockford, Illinois on June 29, 1858, Lathrop was raised by two politically-minded parents that were involved in the suffragist, abolitionist, and social welfare movements of the time. Lathrop begun her college studies at Rockford Female Seminary, where she was a classmate with Jane Addams, though eventually graduated from Vassar College in 1880. This important contact with Addams at Rockford would later lead to Lathrop’s involvement and residency at the Hull House beginning in 1890.

Lathrop’s experience at Addams’ Hull House in Chicago brought her in direct contact with the poverty, congestion, and child exploitation and vagrancy of the developing industrial age. Among other reformers like Florence Kelley, Jane Addams, and Ellen Gates Starr, Lathrop contributed to the research and analysis on the conditions of the Hull House neighborhood in the Hull House Maps and Papers. Her work led her to be appointed a state position within the Illinois Board of Charities.

In 1912, Julia Lathrop was appointed by President William Howard Taft as the first Chief of the Children’s Bureau in Washington, D.C. Her nomination made her the first female chief of a federal bureau. The first thing on Lathrop’s agenda for the Children’s Bureau included a reformed birth register.

“We cannot begin to know anything about how children are lost, or why they are lost, until we know how many are born… Birth registration, too, fixes the age of a child and makes it impossible for the parent by false swearing to secure a certification permitting an under-age child to go to work. Compulsory education as well as child labor registration are buttressed by it.” – Julia Lathrop, 1914.

Lathrop understood the importance of the Children’s Bureau because it was based on a sociological, rather than clinical, analysis and understanding, unlike other bureaus, such as the Bureau of Public Health. The Children’s Bureau under Lathrop performed studies on infant mortality, developed a national birth registration, and introduced the Sheppard-Towner Act. This act provided federal funding for infant and maternal health services, and was signed into law by President Warren G. Harding in 1921. That same year, Lathrop stepped down as the Bureau’s Chief due to health issues and was replaced by Grace Abbott.

After her retirement from federal government, Lathrop returned to the state level of reform, where she became president of the Illinois League of Women Voters.

Julia Clifford Lathrop died April 15, 1932 at the age of 73.