Saint Joseph’s Hospital and Social Work: A Common Heritage


With only 50 cents in their possession and an intention of service in their hearts, Sisters Cecilia Carroll, Mary Helene Sheehan, Mary Borgia Thomas, and Mary Berchmans Young travelled from Savannah, GA in order to establish Saint Joseph’s Hospital – the first medical facility in Atlanta following the Civil War.  Members of the Sisters of Mercy, they were dedicated to serving God’s people, especially the sick, poor and uneducated. In other parts of the country, the next 25 years saw the growth of a newly forming profession also dedicated to helping people made vulnerable by poverty, illness, and a lack of education – the profession of social work.  Jane Addams was instrumental in the formation of this new profession after she founded Hull House in Chicago.  This was one of several settlement houses created to “reform” people who suffered social ills in order to improve their quality of life and the well-being of the community.  Colleges and Universities in the North began offering classes and eventually degrees that taught the theories, principles, and values that modern social work embraces. 

In 1905, the ties between social problems, such as poverty and tuberculosis, became glaringly obvious to Dr. Richard Cabot.  Tuberculosis was a disease most commonly acquired by poor and uneducated individuals living in unsanitary conditions.  Dr. Cabot established the first medical social work program in our country as a result of this observation in order to address the social and environmental causes of illness.  Social worker Ida Cannon said of Cabot that “he was presenting the idea of social service within the hospital where sick patients, although separated from their home and families, nevertheless cannot separate themselves from their personal problems.”  It was then that the different skills of medicine and social work came together to create a better and healthier life for individuals, families and communities.  Social work was found to be indispensable in many areas of medicine, as the interplay between psychosocial concerns and medical problems became so evident, and social workers found themselves working in hospitals throughout the country (and abroad).  In time, social workers became essential team members in other areas of medicine, as well, including dialysis clinics, long-term care facilities, and hospices.

The similarity of values between social work and medicine is evident at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.  Some of Saint Joseph’s core values are reverence for each person, justice and commitment to the poor.  Likewise, some of social work’s core values include honoring the intrinsic dignity of all persons, social justice, and working for people who are vulnerable due to issues such as age, illness and economic status.  Saint Joseph’s social workers not only help the hospital carry out its mission, but also the mission of our profession. We provide compassionate and excellent service to improve the well-being of our community through assessment, education, counseling and referrals to community resources. I am proud to work for an organization with a tremendous ministry founded from a heritage rich in hope, courage and spirit; much like the profession of social work.


 Lisa Roling earned her bachelor’s degrees in sociology and social work, as well as her master’s in social work, at the University of Georgia in Athens. Lisa has been with Saint Joseph’s Hospital since 2008, having spent three years as a member of the Palliative Care team before joining Florence Hays Erb Oncology Services. Prior to working for Saint Joseph’s, she spent several years working in hospice, offering compassionate support and counseling to patients and families facing life-limiting illness



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