Helen Rehr: Trailblazer in Social Work
This is a guest blog post by summer intern, Willa Jacob. Willa is a rising senior at Smith College where she studies Anthropology and the Study of Women and Gender.
A trailblazer in the field of social work and at The Mount Sinai Hospital, Helen Rehr, DSW, is one of the lively personalities in the Archive that jumps off the page when reading. The Department of Social Work Services at The Mount Sinai Hospital underwent great growth during her time as Associate Director and as Director from 1954 to 1980. In recognition of this, David S. Pomrinse, MD, Director of The Mount Sinai Hospital at the time, asserted, “I know that in the years to come we will value even more the service, leadership, teaching, and research of our friend and second Edith J. Baerwald Professor, Dr. Helen Rehr” at Dr. Rehr’s investiture in 1974.1
Dr. Rehr began at Mount Sinai in 1954 as the Associate Director of the Department of Social Services, second in command to Doris Siegel, MSW, and following Ms. Siegel’s death in 1971, she served as Director until 1980. She also was the second Edith J. Baerwald Professor of Community Medicine in Social Work following Ms. Siegel from 1971 to 1986.
Dr. Helen Rehr was born in 1919 in the Southeast Bronx. In one of her interviews, she affectionately refers to her younger self as a “Bronx delinquent,” “[t]he reason being is that I was always bucking things. I was a little bit hitting the streets as I was growing up.”2
She grew up in the Bronx with her mother, father, and older brother, who was five years older than her but passed away at the age of sixteen. Twice during her childhood, she visited Poland, where her parents hailed from. Her father was a waiter at Geffner’s, a vegetarian restaurant in the Bronx, and her mother began working mid-life at a bakery. Her home always had a vibrant table full of fish, perogies, and varieties of breads, rolls, and cakes that her parents brought home daily from work.2
When Rehr started at Hunter College, she moved into a single-room apartment in Manhattan. With much humor she described her move in an interview as “[r]unning away […] in the sense that one reaches a late adolescent stage, or college, and you think you want to be independent.”2 She graduated from Hunter College in 1940 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in economics. Although she enjoyed statistics and architecture in college, she attributed her career in social work to the fact that she was a “[Great] Depression product.” Hence, social problems were of great concern to her. Not to mention, architecture and statistics were still male-dominated fields at that time, whereas social work was much more accessible to women. In 1945, she earned her master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work (CUSSW) where she would also earn a doctorate twenty-five years later.
After receiving her master’s, she worked at Sydenham Hospital, Grasslands Hospital, Bellevue Hospital, New York Association of New Americans, and the New York City Health Department before settling down at The Mount Sinai Hospital. In fact, Ms. Siegel initially had reservations about hiring her as she seemed to “move in and out of jobs rapidly,” however, the reservations were misplaced as Dr. Rehr spent the remainder of her career at Mount Sinai.3
Her last job prior to Mount Sinai, managing a quality care auditing program in the Maternal and Child Health Care sector at the New York City Health Department, was particularly important to her. “I think that professionals in the health care field have some responsibility to the public arena, and ought to do a stint of service in the public area. Now, I don’t know that I was conscious of doing it at that point for that reason, but I did.”2
Among Dr. Rehr’s greatest contributions to Mount Sinai were her surveys and research methods, and the programs birthed from them. In her own words, “[p]robably what I brought to this institution was major modality of doing studies and that those studies pretty much demonstrated where we need programs, and I would say […] we have changed the department by bringing dozens of new programs in.”3
During her very first year at Mount Sinai, in 1954, she was tasked by Ms. Siegel to do a survey of the Social Services department. At the time, the department was working out of the basement of an old clinic on Madison Avenue and 100th Street, and many of the social workers were “old-time nurses.”2 3 Based on her report and recommendations, they developed a five-year plan to professionalize the department. Dr. Rehr initially wanted to replace all current employees with professional new hires, but in the end, they decided to retain the nurses, offering them the opportunity to go back to school, which was made possible with grants from the Auxiliary Board. Dr. Rehr credits this move as instilling trust and stability in the department while they grew the department with professional new hires.
Around this same time with the establishment of Medicaid and Medicare, The Mount Sinai Hospital implemented a cost-plus reimbursement mechanism that enabled Ms. Siegel and Dr. Rehr to increase staff on evidence of need. As a result, the size of the department more than quadrupled, expanding from 31 employees to 128 full-time employees.2 And yet, Dr. Rehr asserted that she knew they had a professional department in the mid-1960s, when requests for services were coming from doctors across all departments and for patients irrespective of class.2
Another important achievement Dr. Rehr pioneered was the creation of the Department of Patient Representatives. She had done another study at the hospital and found a series of obstacles impacting patients’ access to care. She recommended to Martin Steinberg, MD, the former Director of the hospital, a program that would handle these obstacles specifically and facilitate “the delivery of care within the institution.” He funded the program out of the administrative office and hired Ruth Ravitch, the first director of the first Department of Patient Representatives in the world until the late 1990s.3
Dr. Rehr also contributed to her field in important ways as an educator. During her sabbatical in 1978, she taught social work in healthcare and applied social work research methodology as the Kenneth L. M. Pray Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work. She also had visiting professorships at Ben-Gurion University, Hebrew University, and Haifa University. While lecturing in Israel at Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University in 1986, she created a three-month study-abroad program at Mount Sinai with a curriculum on leadership in social work in healthcare.3 Soon after, the program was extended to Australia as well. Every fall and spring semester two students from each country have come to Mount Sinai to study from 1986 through at least 1995.
One other lasting impact Dr. Rehr’s tenure is a position for Social Work Services on the Medical Board. Ms. Siegel was the first non-medical representative to be on the Medical Board after petitioning them in the mid-1960s. When Ms. Siegel passed away in 1971, the seat was promptly removed. Dr. Rehr and Gail Weissman, the Head of Nursing at the time, outraged by this, caucused the members of the Board to vote for positions for the two departments.3 Through much difficulty, the seats for the Department of Social Work and Department of Nursing were restored to the Board.
Dr. Rehr passed away in 2013 at the age of 93. She was highly recognized for her contributions to the field of Social Work. Dr. Rehr began the Murray Rosenberg Applied Social Work Research Center and was a member of the editorial board of the Social Work Health Care Journal since 1975. She endowed the Helen Rehr Scholarship Fund to CUSSW’s Master’s program and has two professorships in her honor, The Helen Rehr Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Helen Rehr/Ruth Fizdale Professor of Health and Mental Health at the Columbia School of Social Work. Dr. Rehr was named a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers, received the Columbia Alumni Federation’s Distinguished Service Alumni Medal in 2004, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at CUSSW.
Dr. Rehr was also highly praised by her colleagues. Jane Aron, trustee and creator of the Edith J. Baerwald Professorship, declared that Rehr’s “knack of cutting through to the core of a problem, her inventiveness, her razor-sharp mind, her sympathetic heart, make her a very special woman.” This opinion was seconded by Dr. Kurt Deushle, Head of the Department of Community Medicine, who complimented her pragmatism, creativity, and determination that made her, “a professional in the best sense of that word.”1
- 1.Recording of Helen Rehr investiture as Baerwald Professor of Community Medicine (Social Work). Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai records, Arthur H. Aufses, Jr. MD Archives, Icahn School of Medicine, New York, New York. Published March 29, 1974. Accessed August 2022. https://archives.mssm.edu/aa096-s015-inv010
- 2.Rehr H, Lyons AS. Transcript of an interview with Helen Rehr, DSW by Albert S. Lyons. Collection of Mount Sinai-Related Oral Histories, Arthur H. Aufses, Jr. MD Archives, Icahn School of Medicine, New York, New York. Published December 4, 1984. Accessed August 2022. https://archives.mssm.edu/aa107-int027
- 3.Rehr H, Lyons AS. Recording of an interview with Helen Rehr by Albert S. Lyons. Collection of Mount Sinai-Related Oral Histories, Arthur H. Aufses, Jr. MD Archives, Icahn School of Medicine, New York, New York. Published April 25, 1995. Accessed August 2022. https://archives.mssm.edu/aa107-int058