Why Aren't Edith Abbott's Statistical Contributions Better Known Today? Part 3

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series described Edith Abbott’s statistical background and the statistical reasoning exemplified in her 1915 report Statistics Relating to Crime in Chicago. Why isn’t she better known today as a statistical pioneer?

Chicago Reaction to the Crime Report

The Report of the City Council Committee on Crime was published on March 22, 1915. Abbott’s section on crime statistics spanned pages 19-88; other sections of the report treated “Underlying Causes and Practical Methods for Preventing Crime” and a “Description and Analysis of Criminal Conditions.”

The last section of the report, on criminal conditions, received the most media attention. It discussed hangouts and habits of Chicago’s “professional criminals,” who were allowed to “carry on their work from year to year apparently without fear of successful interference with their occupation”; the confidence men who “sold” Chicago’s Masonic Temple to unsuspecting tourists; the relationship between crime, prostitution, alcohol, and drugs; and “collusion between certain members of the police force and certain criminals” that allowed professional criminals to flourish.

Not surprisingly, most newspapers chose to focus on the “graft and corruption” part instead of on Abbott’s tightly reasoned statistical summaries.* The Chicago Examiner wrote: “Collusion between the police and crooks of all kinds, the recognized latitude given professional bondsmen as ‘fixers,’ the permitted existence of ‘fences’ and ‘hang outs’ for notorious professional criminals, through which a crime ‘trust’ is operated, are blamed for the great increase in crime and vice….” The Chicago Examiner article mentioned the inadequacy of the city’s crime statistics, but the headline was about the “crime trust.”

Today, of course, the Chicago Police Department has a sophisticated statistical operation (as well as one of the best crime mapping systems for public use that I’ve seen). It is difficult to say how much of development of Chicago’s crime statistics can be traced directly back to Abbott’s work, however.** According to the 1929 Illinois Crime Survey, Chicago’s crime statistics then had many of the same deficiencies that Abbott had described 14 years earlier, including a dearth of “available data as to the actual number of crimes reported to have been committed” and a “lack of uniformity in the records kept” about repeat offenders. Other Chicagoans were also concerned about crime and were calling for reforms and better statistics. Her influence was likely more pronounced through national developments in the 1920s and 1930s.

Abbott’s Reputation as a Crime Statistician in the 1920s and 1930s

Abbott’s statistical studies on crime and immigration were well known in the 1920s and 1930s, and men who served on and advised the Committee on Uniform Crime Records, which established the structure for the Uniform Crime Reporting System in 1929, were familiar with her work. Robert Gault had written the crime prevention section of the 1915 Chicago City Council report, and frequently cited Abbott’s statistical work. Several of the consultants to the committee, such as Samuel Bass Warner, had cited Abbott’s statistical work in research papers; others had cited the “Merriam report”; others had not cited the report but demonstrated, through repeating statistics from her report, that they were aware of her work. Warner, arguing that police statistics should be collected by the Census Bureau instead of the Department of Justice, echoed Abbott’s concerns about the poor quality of police department data and the departments’ silence about “how the figures are collected and what their uses and limitations are.”

Abbott herself was not on the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) committee, however. One cannot help but think that the early UCR data collection would have been better if she had been. Men on the committee may have been familiar with Abbott’s work, but they did not have her training or experience with collecting and analyzing data. And, of course, they would have promoted their own ideas, not Abbott’s (even if some of their ideas accorded with or had originated from hers). The first UCR was limited to counts for seven crimes from 400 cities. Unlike Abbott’s 1915 report, the early UCR did not evaluate data quality (which was likely poor) or discuss how missing data and errors in the data might affect their statistics of crime counts and time trends. Abbott had recommended collecting demographic data and other information about offenders; the UCR first did this in the 1960s, and then only for homicide (the UCR is still in the process of transitioning to a system that collects such information for other offenses).

Abbott was asked in 1929 to write the section “Crime and the Foreign Born” for President Hoover’s National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (often called the Wickersham Commission after its chair). Roscoe Pound, dean of Harvard Law School and a member of the Commission, wrote of this choice: “No one could be better. She is the sort of ‘expert’ who can be of use to you.” The Wickersham Commission members listed her qualifications in the section’s preface:

Dean Abbott's long and distinguished career as a student and teacher of social economics, her membership in learned societies and associations devoted to social research, and her authorship in the fields of women in industry, immigration, juvenile delinquency, and social science generally, not only make her one of the most distinguished scholars in the general field of social economics but particularly qualified her to direct this particular study.

Edith Abbott’s younger sister Grace was even better known than Edith. Grace Abbott was chief of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Labor from 1921 to 1934. The Children’s Bureau promoted maternal and child health, restrictions on child labor, and almost anything else that Grace Abbott thought would enhance the welfare of children. It was managed and staffed almost entirely by women, which was unusual for a government agency in the 1920s, and it carried out and funded numerous statistical investigations related to child welfare (some of them conducted by Edith Abbott’s School of Social Service Administration). In 1929, Grace Abbott became one of the first women to broadcast to a national audience when she hosted the NBC radio show “Your Child.” In 1931, Good Housekeeping magazine named Grace Abbott the fifth most distinguished woman living in America (Jane Addams was first on the list; Helen Keller was fourth).

Together, the Abbott sisters were a formidable team. They received multiple honorary degrees and were well known in social welfare circles. And they were not the only women using statistics to study social problems in the early part of the twentieth century. Chicago alone, in part because of the Hull House tradition, had a number of prominent female statisticians. A 1917 book, published by the University of Chicago to celebrate its 25th anniversary, catalogued the publications of its faculty between 1902 and 1916. Of the 16 persons listed as professors or lecturers in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, four were women: Annie Marion MacLean, Marion Talbot, Mary McDowell, and Edith Abbott. Abbott’s longtime collaborator Sophonisba Breckinridge, another prolific author of statistical studies, was listed in the book as a member of the Department of Household Administration.

Fellow of the American Statistical Association, 1945

Abbott was elected Fellow of the American Statistical Association (ASA) in 1945; the citation for the award recognizes her work as “a pioneer in the statistical study of social problems, and in the teaching of methods for studies in social statistics.”

The first ASA Fellows were elected in 1914; about 170 ASA members had been honored with the designation by the end of 1944. Abbott was the sixth woman to receive the award, following Kate Holladay Claghorn in 1918, Aryness Joy Wickens (1952 president of the ASA) in 1937, Helen M. Walker (1944 president of the ASA) in 1940, Dorothy Swaine Thomas in 1942, and Gertrude Mary Cox (1956 president of the ASA) in 1944. Mary Van Kleeck was also elected Fellow in 1945, but by virtue of strategic alphabetic positioning, Abbott likely received the award before Van Kleeck.

Why Did Abbott Vanish from Crime Statistics History?

Edith Abbott was an acknowledged expert in crime statistics in the 1920s and 1930s, and the American Statistical Association had recognized her statistical contributions by electing her Fellow in 1945. Why don’t we see more references to her statistical contributions today? I think it’s partly because of who wrote the histories and what they chose to include, and partly the fleeting nature of academic recognition.

Abbott’s section on Statistics Relating to Crime in Chicago was one part of a larger report, and most subsequent authors (including Abbott herself) did not refer to it as “Abbott (1915).” They referenced the “Chicago City Council” report, the “Merriam report,” or the journal article summarizing the findings (for which Merriam was sole author). Although Merriam credited Abbott in the article, this credit would not have been carried forward by later authors citing Merriam (1915).

Commission reports are usually cited in this way. For example, in the references section I cite the National Academies of Sciences report Modernizing Crime Statistics. One might alternatively refer to it as the “Lauritsen report” because Janet Lauritsen chaired the committee. But a panel of 15 persons contributed to researching and writing the report; any innovations from sections written by those persons are credited to the report as a whole and not to the individuals. The same thing likely happened to Abbott with respect to the 1915 report in Chicago and, to some degree, with respect to her contributions on the Wickersham Commission.***

Citation patterns can also lead to earlier authors getting “lost” in the literature. Maltz’s and Rosen’s histories of crime statistics referenced authors who had written earlier histories but did not repeat the names of crime statistics pioneers, such as Edith Abbott, whose work had been summarized in the earlier references. More recently, Mary Jo Deegan, Robyn Muncy, and other scholars have drawn attention to Edith Abbott’s remarkable contributions to sociology and social work; James Calder has described Abbott’s contributions to the Wickersham Commission report. But these authors, all from the social sciences, have largely focused on Abbott’s contributions to their disciplines, not her contributions to statistical science. Abbott’s biographer Lela Costin, clearly an admirer of her many accomplishments, devoted one line of the book to Abbott’s statistical work on the 1915 crime report.

Abbott published her research in books and in journals such as the Journal of Political Economy, the American Journal of Sociology, and, after she co-founded the journal in 1927, the Social Service Review. She did not publish in statistics journals, which might be another reason that statisticians have lost track of her. The only reference I found to her work in the Publications of the American Statistical Association was William B. Bailey’s December 1915 review of Statistics Relating to Crime in Chicago; he called it a “good piece of work” and a “careful study of criminal statistics.”

Abbott did not develop new statistical methodology, but, as I argued in Part 2, her recommendations and example for how to collect and present statistics were ahead of her time. Many of her recommendations could be presented verbatim to agencies conducting statistical studies today — and would in many cases improve the data collection and reporting. She considered statistics an essential part of education, and insisted that students should have the statistical knowledge to evaluate research studies for themselves.

It’s time to credit Edith Abbott as the statistician she proudly proclaimed herself to be.

Copyright (c) 2019 Sharon L. Lohr


*The Chicago Tribune did not publish anything about the City Council report during the week of March 22, but it had written about Abbott’s findings on low conviction rates and the relative numbers of arrests of native- and foreign-born persons on September 19 and November 12, 1914, respectively (the articles did not mention her suggestions for improving crime statistics). Recall that Merriam’s resolution to issue a crime study had been approved by the City Council on May 18, 1914. Abbott had managed to assemble the data, calculate the statistics, and write the report in less than six months — while working at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and the University of Chicago, participating in Hull House projects and suffrage work, and conducting research on other projects (in 1915, Abbott published eight works in addition to the crime report, on suffrage, minimum wage, education for social workers including the importance of statistical training, and problems with jails).

**Her report resulted in at least one legislative change. Abbott had discovered in 1915 that about 80 percent of persons in the House of Correction were there for nonpayment of fines. She wrote in her 1922 follow-up, Recent Statistics Relating to Crime in Chicago, that the legislature passed a law in 1915 allowing men and women who owed fines to be released on probation and to pay the fines by installment. She found, however, that the percentage committed for nonpayment of fines in 1921 was still greater than 50 percent.

***The Wickersham Commission report’s impact may also have been diminished because the draft report was sent to President Hoover on October 28, 1929 — “Black Monday” of the stock market crash — and by the time it was published in 1931 the United States was preoccupied with the Depression.


Abbott, Edith (1910). Women in Industry. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Abbott, Edith (1915). Are women a force for good government? National Municipal Review 4, 435-437.

Abbott, Edith (1915). Statistics relating to crime in Chicago. In Report of the City Council Committee on Crime of the City of Chicago, pp. 17-88. Chicago, IL: City of Chicago.

Abbott, Edith (1922). Recent statistics relating to crime in Chicago. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 13, 329-358.

Abbott, Edith (1950). Grace Abbott and Hull House, 1908-21, Parts I and II. Social Service Review, 24, 374-394 and 493-518.

Bukowski, Douglas (1998). Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of Image. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Calder, James D. (1993). The Origins and Development of Federal Crime Control Policy: Herbert Hoover’s Initiatives. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Calder, James D. (2013). Between Brain and State: Herbert C. Hoover, George W. Wickersham, and the Commission That Grounded Social Scientific Investigations of American Crime and Justice, 1929–1931 and Beyond. Marquette Law Review 96, 1035-1108. Calder calls Merriam (2015) a “fascinating article published 14 years” before the Wickersham Commission started work; he mentions Edith Abbott’s work on the 1915 report and discusses her contributions to the Wickersham Commission but does not cite her 1915 report directly.

Costin, Lela B. (1983). Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Deegan, Mary Jo (1988). Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Deegan, Mary Jo and Michael R. Hill (1991). “Edith Abbott (1876-1957).” In Women in Sociology: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Mary Jo Deegan. New York: Greenwood Press, pp. 29-36.

International Association of Chiefs of Police (1929). Uniform Crime Reporting: A Complete Manual for Police. Report of the Committee on Uniform Crime Records. New York, NY: J.J. Little and Ives Company.

Koren, John (1918). The History of Statistics: Their Development and Progress in Many Countries. Reprinted in 1970, New York: Burt Franklin.

Lengermann, Patricia M. and Gillian Niebrugge (2006). The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory 1830–1930. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Lindberg, Richard (1991). To Serve and Collect : Chicago Politics and Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal. New York: Praeger.

Lohr, Sharon L. (2019). Measuring Crime: Behind the Statistics. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. Chapter 11 outlines Edith Abbott’s contributions to crime statistics. Part of Chapter 11 was excerpted in Significance magazine.

Maltz, Michael D. (1977). Crime statistics: A historical perspective. Crime & Delinquency 23, 32-40.

Merriam, Charles E. (1915). Findings and Recommendations of the Chicago Council Committee on Crime. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 6, 345-362.

Muncy, Robyn (1990). Gender and Professionalization in the Origins of the U.S. Welfare State: The Careers of Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, 1890–1935. Journal of Policy History 2, 290-315.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016). Modernizing Crime Statistics, Report 1: Defi ning and Classifying Crime. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (1931). Report on Criminal Statistics, Report No. 3. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (1931). Report on Crime and the Foreign Born, Report No. 10. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Residents of Hull-House (1895). Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago, Together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing Out of the Social Conditions. Reprinted in 2007 by the University of Illinois Press with and introduction by Rima Lunin Schultz.

Rosen, Lawrence (1995). The creation of the Uniform Crime Report: The role of social science. Social Science History 19, 215-238.

Salas, Luis, and Raymond Surette (1984). The historical roots and development of criminological statistics. Journal of Criminal Justice 12, 457-465.

The New York Times (1931, August 24). Wickersham Commission Frees Foreign-Born of Big Crime Blame. The New York Times, pp. 1-2.