Jane Wisdom: Rebuilding a City, Building a Profession

by Michelle Hébert Boyd, MSW

Jane Wisdom’s career as Nova Scotia’s first professional social worker spanned the transition from a charity model to professional social work — all in a matter of months. Wisdom was still in her first year of consolidating Halifax’s patchwork of charities into the Halifax Welfare Bureau when, on December 6 1917, Halifax was devastated by the biggest human-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb. The Halifax Explosion required unprecedented, innovative social work intervention. Wisdom played a key role not only in building a foundation of social work in Nova Scotia but in helping Nova Scotians to accept and value this new model of social welfare.

Jane Wisdom was born in Saint John, New Brunswick on March 1, 1884.  Her early years in Saint John were influenced by her Presbyterian upbringing and her family’s adherence to the Social Gospel — a progressive reform movement that used charity and social action to alleviate (but not necessarily address) social problems such as poverty, alcohol misuse, and poor living conditions.

After high school, Wisdom attended Montreal’s McGill University, where she was introduced to the notion of professional social work. At that time, social work existed for over 20 years as a profession in England and the United States with prominent social work schools established in New York, Boston, and Chicago. In Canada, social work was still in its infancy, although Progressives were attempting to change that. During her time in Montreal, she attended presentations by some of the worlds’ most prominent social workers. Later, Wisdom would recall the appeal of this uncharted path of social work during a time when women’s career choices were limited to teaching or nursing.

In 1909, Wisdom was hired by the Montreal Charity Organization, the city’s most important welfare agency. In her role of paid visitor, she visited families, assessed need, and identified resources. Although, she quickly rose to the assistant general secretary position she decided to leave and pursue formal social work training. In June 1910, she enrolled in one of the first diploma courses in social work, at Columbia University’s New York School of Philanthropy. She was exposed to the preeminent social work thinkers of the day, including Mary Richmond, who rose to prominence as the author of Social Diagnosis, the first professional text on social casework.

Later, while working as the executive director of two districts for the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, Wisdom received letters from the heads of Halifax’s new welfare bureau, urging her to come work for them. Halifax was one of the few sizeable cities in North America that didn’t have a coordinating body for its charitable organizations. The heads of the Halifax Welfare Bureau (HWB) emphasized their need for a trained, experienced social worker who understood both maritime culture and the benefits of a ‘scientific’ social work approach. After turning down several of their offers, Wisdom finally agreed to join the HWB in May 1916, as its first permanent secretary general.

Wisdom’s new role included individual casework, public speaking, and training and supervising workers. Her main task, though, was to stitch together Halifax’s patchwork of charities — religious and secular, Protestant and Catholic, Progressive and Poor Law-based — into a coordinated and modern social welfare agency. Although she’d certainly faced challenging work in New York and Montreal, she had her work cut out for her in Halifax.

As soon as the British had established the city as a key naval port in 1749, the social problems associated with a military town flooded in. Poverty. Alcohol misuse. Infanticide. Abused and abandoned women and children. Prostitution.

Charity work was carried out by churches and religious organizations, such as the Sisters of Charity and the Charitable Irish. As early as 1820, Halifax had its first Friendly Visitors — the same role Jane Wisdom would fill in Montreal almost a century later, using the same principles of casework that Mary Richmond would later make famous.  Halifax’s model of Friendly Visiting was revolutionary in Canada at the time. In its first year, more than 4,000 individuals and families were assisted.

The Halifax Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (HAICP) was founded in 1867 to coordinate relief work, and for “the elevation of the moral and physical condition of the poor”. Its work was carried out by mostly middle and upper class women volunteers until the 1880s, when the HAICP hired paid male investigators. Charity work with the poor was considered a suitable volunteer activity for women, but not something they should be paid for.

Both the Salvation Army and the Sisters of Charity have claimed to have introduced modern social work to Halifax. Both operated maternity homes, hospitals, orphanages, temperance groups, and outreach to the poor. Other groups, like the Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, and the Victorian Order of Nurses, came to play more prominent roles in wartime and allowed women to take on public roles.

Nova Scotia’s first child welfare laws were created in the early 1880s, based on earlier laws to protect animals, but the Children’s Aid Society wasn’t created until 1914. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty looked after the interests of both animals and women.

Despite its small constellation of charities, early 20th century Halifax had the reputation as the unhealthiest city in North America. It had high incidences of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera, poor infrastructure and sanitation, and poor living conditions. In 1915, New York’s Russell Sage Foundation took an interest in Halifax’s public health and social welfare challenges and provided funds to help create the Halifax Welfare Bureau.

Soon after beginning her work with the HWB, Wisdom described the most pressing issues in Halifax as “tuberculosis, mental and physical disease of every kind, poor housing, high rents, illiteracy, ignorance, incompetency (domestic and industrial), intemperance and moral defects”. In her opinion, the role of the HWB was to create opportunities for health, education, work, recreation, and spiritual development. This mission was ambitious and broad and moved away from an uncoordinated system of charity to a modern framework for social justice.

On the morning of December 6, 1917, Jane Wisdom arrived at work with a headache. She left her office and walked to Barrington Street to purchase some Aspirin. At 9:04 AM she was on the street, three kilometers south of the area in the harbour where two ships — one carrying tonnes of munitions bound for the war — had collided, caught fire, and exploded.

In an instant, 2,000 people were killed, and over 9,000 were injured. Entire families and neighbourhoods disappeared. The Halifax Explosion remains the worst disaster to happen on Canadian soil.

Had Wisdom stayed in her office that morning, she might have been torn to shreds by shards from the plate glass window that imploded next to her desk. On Barrington Street, however, she was unhurt. At that moment — the moment of Halifax’s greatest need — she was the only trained, professional social worker in the city.

That would quickly change. Trainloads of relief workers from the U.S. and other Canadian cities would soon be on their way to Halifax.

But Wisdom and her staff didn’t wait for help. In those first confusing and critical 24 hours, Wisdom led more than 60 local charity workers to create a food distribution system, along with depots for clothing and blankets, and applications for food and coal. Working on little sleep or food, she organized a street-by-street survey to create lists of survivor’s whereabouts. Wisdom’s work in those first chaotic hours was critical. Years later, she stated she remembered only the numbness she felt.

There was no precedent for this relief effort. People on the ground, like Wisdom, had to create a comprehensive social welfare system, encompassing housing, medical care, pensions, relief, and financial support, where none had existed. Within the first month, the Rehabilitation Committee had registered almost 6,000 people. That grew to over 13,000 by the end of January 1918, when a federal body, the Halifax Relief Commission, took over the relief and reconstruction work.

Wisdom rose to the role of director of the Halifax Relief Commission’s Social Service Department. She worked alongside social work experts from across North America, training local charity workers in social casework methods and theory. By March 1918, she was supervising 27 untrained but local social workers. Many of these local workers are believed to have gone on to social work education and careers.

Wisdom left the HWB in 1921, to complete her social work studies and lecture at McGill University. She returned to Nova Scotia in 1941 to undertake a study for the Canadian Welfare Council in Glace Bay and then served as Glace Bay’s first welfare officer until her retirement in 1952. Jane Wisdom died on June 9, 1975, at the age of 91.

Jane Wisdom’s work to rebuild Halifax following the explosion was successful, in large part, due to her ability to collaborate and find common ground. She played a vital role as ‘go-between’ when experts from outside Nova Scotia clashed with local sensibilities. Her work to build the profession of social work in the province was successful for the same reasons. She bridged Halifax’s traditional charity sector and the new, more bureaucratic profession of social work, and showed each how it could benefit from the other.

Wisdom’s life and work demonstrate how one ordinary social worker can be shaped by extraordinary events, and in turn, forever shape the community around her.


Michelle Hébert Boyd is a writer with a career that has included broadcast journalism, mental health advocacy, and serving as policy advisor to NS’s Minister of Health & Wellness. 

Along the way, she merged her passions for history, social policy, and social work into a book – Enriched by Catastrophe: Social Work and Social Conflict after the Halifax Explosion. 

She’s currently executive director of Eating Disorders NS, and shares her home office with two cats and a dog.