Serving the public for 48 years, Mary E. Switzer (1900-1971) dedicated her life to advancing the cause of rehabilitation. She was involved in establishing the World Health Organization, was director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and was administrator of the Social and Rehabilitation Service at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Mary Elizabeth Switzer was born on February 16, 1900, in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, the oldest of three children. Her mother, Margaret Moore Switzer, died when Mary was 11 years old. Since Mary's father, Julius F. Switzer, had deserted the family some years before, Mary and her sister made their home with relatives. The most influential of these, her Uncle "Mike" Moore, was an Irish patriot and socialist. He made a great impression on Mary, encouraging her to adopt a useful life's work.
Switzer was raised a Roman Catholic and attended Newton Classical High. After she graduated in 1917 she enrolled in Radcliffe College, where she majored in international law, the first undergraduate to do so. She received an A.B. degree in 1921. While at Radcliffe, Switzer helped establish the Inter-Collegiate Liberal League, a group dedicated to reform.
Moving to Washington, D.C., she found employment with the Minimum Wage Board. In the nation's capital she shared a home with Isabelle Stevenson Diamond, later a librarian in the Treasury Department. In 1922 Switzer entered the civil service and obtained a position as junior economist in the Treasury Department. Between 1928 and 1933 she had responsibility for press intelligence for the secretary of the treasury. In 1934 she began working as assistant to Josephine Roche, assistant secretary of the treasury. There Switzer was assigned to the U.S. Public Health Service, where she worked toward development of the Federal Security Agency. This agency became the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in 1953 (now two separate departments—Education, and Health and Human Services).
By 1939 Switzer was assistant to the administrator of the Federal Security Agency (FSA), Paul McNutt, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor she did confidential work with the War Research Service and was the FSA representative on the War Manpower Commission. Her dedication brought her the Presidential Certificate of Merit, given in recognition of her contribution to the war effort. This certificate was the highest award going to a regular civil service worker.
Mary E. Switzer helped establish the World Health Organization, and on November 9, 1950, was named director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), succeeding Michael J. Shortley. In her capacity as director she concentrated on bringing vocational training to all physically and mentally handicapped persons. The OVR had been established in 1920 and during its first two decades had rehabilitated only about 10, 000 persons annually. Due to Switzer's efforts, the number of people returning to work annually rose from 56, 000 in 1950 to 240, 000 in 1970. Her commitment was well-known, and she was instrumental in the unanimous passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1954. This legislation was critical in funding research and training and in establishing rehabilitation centers nationwide. Further, Switzer was responsible for adding, in 1960, an international research program for the handicapped.
Her adroitness in working with federal and state-level officials was a skill she worked hard to develop. She was also able to maintain an excellent relationship with Congress throughout her years of service, despite changing administrations with often conflicting goals. Colleagues respected her energy, and she was admired for her optimism and concern for handicapped workers. In 1955 she received the President's Award from the National Rehabilitation Association.
On August 23, 1960, Mary E. Switzer was the first female recipient of the prestigious Albert Lasker Award. This award was given in recognition of her position as the "prime architect of a workable rehabilitation service for the nation's physically handicapped." Switzer was also awarded honorary doctorates from Tufts University, Gallaudet College, Western College for Women, Adelphi University, Boston University, and Women's Medical College. She was also on the board of Brandeis University and was a trustee of Radcliffe College.
She retired in 1970 as administrator of the Social and Rehabilitation Service of HEW at a banquet attended by over 1, 000 people. Still committed to public service, however, Switzer's retirement merely enabled her to assume a position as vice president of the World Rehabilitation Fund, with offices in the nation's capital. Mary E. Switzer died of cancer in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 1971.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare compiled a list of Switzer's publications entitled "Articles by Miss Mary E. Switzer." Also, her friend and life-long companion Isabelle Stevenson Diamond wrote a booklet, "Mary Elizabeth Switzer, 'The Dedicated Bureaucrat.'" And Rehabilitation Record, January-February 1972, carried a piece, "Mary Elizabeth Switzer: A Tribute." She is included in Jonathan R. T. Hughes, The Vital Few (several editions).
Walker, Martha Lentz, Beyond bureaucracy: Mary Elizabeth Switzer and rehabilitation, Lanham: University Press of America, 1985.