Louise Doss Martin, AB ’59, AM ’63, has mixed service and advocacy with her own original research on social welfare policies and programs for mothers and children on the national stage, continuing a tradition begun by SSA’s founding mothers.
The granddaughter of Lucius Harper, executive editor of The Chicago Defender, Martin grew up
in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, where her family encouraged her to pursue her education beyond her bachelor’s degree. “I was always taught to have the courage of my convictions and to be a catalyst for change, both from SSA and my family,” she says. “In my family, we were told that because we were fortunate and middle class, we had an obligation to reach back and help others.”
At SSA, Martin was one of the youngest members of her class and one of the first African- American women to receive a graduate degree at the University of Chicago. While at the School, Martin served as a leader in the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, which merged with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to became the Chicago Freedom Movement (and which encouraged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other SCLC leaders to come to Chicago in the mid-1960s).
When she started at SSA, Martin planned to go into psychiatric social work. “Originally I had thought about private practice, but at SSA I learned about public health and decided I wanted to work with the disadvantaged,” she says.
After graduation, Martin started her career providing psychosocial services in community health centers in North Lawndale and near Cabrini Green. Serving as director of social work, she wrote grant applications and worked with the community advisory boards to develop programs. She also had the opportunity to recruit and train women from the community for social work or nursing assistant positions, learning first-hand what life was like for mothers and children who lived in the projects at Cabrini-Green.
Martin’s community outreach brought her to the attention of the social work staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which was just beginning a new community mental health project to provide after-care for patients released from state hospitals and patients living in halfway houses.
“These patients were not used to this level of service,” Martin says. “They typically would go into the state hospital, become stabilized, and then be sent out again. After their discharge, they would go back to the same conditions, habits and behaviors that brought them there. It was a revolving door. With our community mental health center, they received follow up and their medications and they lived in halfway houses for community support. As a result, we abolished the revolving door.”
After five years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Martin was invited to apply for a vacancy in the United States Public Health Service’s regional office in Chicago, which serves six states in the Midwest. One of seven uniformed services of the federal government, the USPHS monitors health care to underserved populations nationwide.
Martin was assigned to the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, working as the social work consultant to an interdisciplinary team that monitored programs funded directly by the bureau and consulted with local agencies on best uses for block grants to states. Martin’s earlier experience with community health contributed to her success with outreach efforts.
During this time, Martin became acquainted with Samuel Deutsch Professor Emerita Dolores Norton, who first came to SSA in 1977 as a member of an accreditation committee. “Louise was someone I was introduced to as an alumna and as an important person in the Chicago social work community,” Norton says. “She always has had this sense of confidence in interacting with people, and she knew how to use data to tell a story.”
Martin realized that publishing or telling a story through data could be a form of advocacy. She developed a collegial relationship with fellow officers Virginia Insley and Juanita Evans, who encouraged her to write and publish. Insley was originally part of the Children’s Bureau, first headed by Julia Lathrop from 1912 to 1921 and then by Grace Abbott from 1921 to 1934, both among SSA’s founding mothers.
“There is a cadre of women in Chicago that bridged the founding of SSA to where the School is today. The founders were instrumental in establishing national maternal and child health policies,” Martin says. “They fought for these policies despite ridicule and skepticism.”
Martin wanted to address a need she had learned about in her work—the rate at which black women were dying from pregnancy and childbirth conditions. “Compared to their white counterparts, the numbers were huge,” she says. “I remembered hearing stories about preventable deaths during my visits to the projects in Chicago. There was support for reducing infant mortality, but maternal mortality was not a popular subject.”
Martin gathered information on maternal deaths for Chicago and Detroit and partnered with Kristine Siefert, a faculty member at the University of Michigan. In 1987, they published “Black Maternal Mortality in Chicago, Detroit and the U.S.: 1979–1984” in Studies and Papers: A Publication of the Health Resources and Services Administration, which showed that maternal mortality rates for minority women were four times higher than those for white women in Chicago and Detroit—rates that surpassed those of some third-world countries.
The study received extensive media coverage and earned praise from the national head of the USPHS Maternal & Child Health Bureau. It also resulted in a $35 million program in Illinois to provide comprehensive prenatal care for underserved women and to testimony that led to the development of national maternal mortality objectives. “I could see that my work helped change how services are offered. I felt I was following in the steps of Grace Abbott and Julia Lathrop,” Martin says.
In 1990, Martin was assigned to a USPHS special detail to address the high infant-mortality rate created by the crack cocaine epidemic in Washington, D.C. “When I arrived, the city had the highest black infant mortality rate in the country,” she says. “Substance abuse agencies did not know how to treat pregnant women, and the agencies that provided prenatal care would not admit addicts.”
Martin began by working with teams at the substance abuse agencies to develop special programs for addicted women and their infants. She notes that by 2000, the black infant mortality rate in Washington, D.C. was only 10 percent of what it had been a decade earlier. In recognition of her work, Martin received the 2001 Social Worker of the Year Award from the Social Work Section of the American Public Health Association.
After her special detail post, she was assigned to the USPHS Bureau of Primary Health Care, where she monitored health, resources and services for public housing residents and the homeless. She worked to integrate mental health services with primary medical care, benefitting more than 12 million people nationally. She wrote several reports for Congress and developed a position paper calling for the integration of mental health services into Community Health Center primary care programs. When that plan was approved by the director of the bureau, Martin was tapped to initiate it. In 2006, Martin retired from the USPHS with the rank of Captain.
Martin says that her time at SSA has served her well in her research, including her latest work, completing the PhD program in social work at the Case Western Reserve University. She had long wanted to earn a doctoral degree, and so she took the opportunity when she was nominated for and received a Mandel Fellowship for mid-to-late-career professionals at Case Western. Her doctoral research is on the effects of stress and depression on obesity for African-American women. She is completing her dissertation and expects to receive her doctorate within two years.
“The fact that we were required to write a thesis at SSA set the stage for the rest of my career. Respect for research and the power of the pen were what I gained from SSA,” Martin says. She adds that she benefitted from exposure to such SSA faculty as Charlotte Towle, who was a noted educator and pioneer in working with the mentally ill, and Helen Harris Perlman, who introduced the idea of short-term therapy and approached social work as a way to solve problems.
Norton says that Martin has the ability to look at problems and what must be done in a way that engages people regardless of their backgrounds. “Louise is a problem solver,” she says. “She brings a passionate belief in what social work can do and what it must do to improve the lives of families and children.”
Martin encourages social work students to get some practical work after their master’s degree. “I believe practical work experience puts students in touch with real-world clients so they can understand people’s struggles,” she says.
For SSA students, she adds, “Know your history. There is great satisfaction for being a catalyst for social change. Women who spoke up in the early days of social work were ridiculed and stigmatized, but they persisted and refused to give up. Knowledge of that history can be empowering.”