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COLLECTION Identifier: 83-M199--84-M33

Papers of Katherine Brownell Oettinger, 1924-1982


Speeches, articles, conference programs, etc., of Katherine Brownell Oettinger, social worker, dean, and government official.


  • Creation: 1924-1982

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Katherine Brownell Oettinger is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


7 linear feet ((7 cartons), plus 4 photograph folders, 1 oversize folder, 4 folio folders, 1 photograph folio folder)

The papers of Katherine Brownell Oettinger contain of professional correspondence, speeches, reports, conference programs, clippings, publications, and photographs. There are no personal papers. The collection follows Oettinger's career and is arranged chronologically.

The earliest material, with the exception of some papers written at Smith College, chronicles Oettinger's activities in Scranton, Pennsylvania, including her efforts to add mental health training as an integral part of nursing programs as well as her commitment to building and expanding a variety of resources to meet the needs of the community. There is a good deal of correspondence from this period, and her work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Nursery Schools is particularly well documented. Her tenure at the Children's Bureau and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare is documented by speeches, articles, conference programs, news releases, clippings, and photographs. There is little correspondence from Oettinger's service in the federal government; much of it presumably remained with the departmental records at the National Archives. Oettinger's work as a consultant for the Council on Social Work Education, the International Association of Schools of Social Work, and the Inter-American Dialogue Center is represented largely by conference programs and reports. Other records reflecting Oettinger's role in the Council on Social Work Education and the Inernational Association of Schools of Social Work are available at the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.

The original order of the collection was chronological and this arrangement has been retained. The donor's folder headings have also been retained. Information added by the processor is in square brackets.


The elder daughter of Charles Leonard and Eunice (Bennet) Brownell, Katherine Brownell Oettinger was born in Nyack, New York, on September 24, 1903. Following the death of her father, the family moved to New York City, where Oettinger attended grammar school and Hunter College High School. She graduated from Smith College with honors in sociology and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1925; in 1926 she received a master's degree from the Smith College School for Social Work, having completed her field training at a settlement house and child guidance clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota.

For the next four years she was a caseworker with the Charity Organization Society in New York City, supervising students from what came to be the Columbia University School of Social Work. In 1929, Oettinger moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to serve as mental health consultant, a pioneering position in the local Visiting Nurse Association. In 1931 she married Malcolm Oettinger, a member of a prominent Scranton family who was then in the furniture business; the couple had two sons. A consultant in development and public relations, Malcolm Oettinger died of Parkinson's disease in 1962.

In 1950 Oettinger was appointed chief of the new Division of Community Services in the Bureau of Mental Health of the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, where she was responsible for administering the first National Mental Health Act funds in the state. Leaving Pennsylvania in 1954 to become the first woman dean of Boston University's School of Social Work, Oettinger used her considerable background to develop research, bring in federal money, and expand course work in a number of fields.

In 1957, she was appointed by President Eisenhower as chief of the Children's Bureau in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. For the next ten years she presided over a six-fold increase in the bureau's budget and was instrumental in focusing public attention on crucial issues in maternal and child health, including the abused child syndrome, and on programs for mentally retarded and other handicapped children, juvenile delinquents, and the development of day care. She served as secretary of the 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth, and as chair of the Interdepartmental Committee on Children and Youth.

As the issue of family planning came to receive a growing amount of public attention, Oettinger in 1965 was the first public official to speak out in its favor. It was not until 1967, however, that, with the expansion of health and welfare programs for mothers and children, it became possible for welfare recipients to receive family planning information from public and private agencies. Oettinger's activity in this field continued with her appointment in 1968 as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population and Family Planning in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In this newly established position Oettinger was charged with developing family planning as a priority, and she served as the focal point for departmental and interdepartmental family planning policy and program coordination. When Richard Nixon became president in January 1969, it became increasingly difficult to find common ground with many of his appointees, and in 1970 Oettinger retired from the federal government.

Oettinger was also active internationally. She was the United States representative on the executive board of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund from 1957 to 1961. She was the United States delegate to the Ninth International Conference on Social Work (1958), chair of the United States delegation to the Eleventh Inter-American Congress on Children (1959), delegate to the International Study Conference on Child Welfare in Tokyo, and leader of the United States delegation to the 1968 Congress on Population and Family Planning in Venezuela.

After leaving government, Oettinger served as a consultant in population and family planning for the International Association of Schools of Social Work, the Council on Social Work Education, and the Inter-American Dialogue Center in Airlie, Virginia, where she coordinated the First Inter-Hemispheric Conference on Adolescent Fertility (1976). Oettinger also lectured at many colleges and universities, and was the keynote speaker at meetings of health, welfare, and civic organizations. In 1980, she taught a graduate course at the University of South Florida on the emotional and social health of adolescents.

Awarded honorary doctorates from Smith College in 1957 and Dickinson College in 1966, Oettinger shared a Parents' Magazine award with John D. Rockefeller III in 1967. She authored numerous articles and a number of larger publications, including, with Jeffrey D. Stansbury, Population and Family Planning: Analytical Abstracts for Social Work Educators and Related Disciplines (New York: International Association of Schools of Social Work, 1972), and Social Work in Action: An International Perspective on Population and Family Planning (New York: IASSW, 1975), and, with Elizabeth C. Mooney, Not My Daughter: Facing Up to Adolescent Pregnancy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979).

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 83-M199, 84-M33

These papers of Katherine (Brownell) Oettinger were given to the Schlesinger Library in September 1983 and February 1984 by Katherine Brownell Oettinger.

Related Materials

There is related material at the Schlesinger Library; see the oral history with Oettinger in the Interviews of the Women in the Federal Government Oral History Project, 1981-1983 (OH-40).


  1. Carton 1: 1-32
  2. Carton 2: 34-56v
  3. Carton 3: 57v-72
  4. Carton 4: 73-118
  5. Carton 5: 119-160
  6. Carton 6: 161-183v
  7. Carton 7: 184-203

Processing Information

Preliminary inventory: April 1986

By: Anne Engelhart

Updated photograph description: June 2016

By: Lillianne Keaney

Oettinger, Katherine Brownell, 1903-1997. Papers of Katherine Brownell Oettinger, 1924-1982: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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