Dr. Sophonisba Preston Breckenridge, JD, PhM, PhD

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Dr. Sophonisba Preston Breckenridge, JD, PhM, PhD

Also Known As: "Preston"
Birthplace: Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, United States
Death: July 30, 1948 (82)
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Place of Burial: 833 West Main Street, Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, 40508, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Colonel William C. P. Breckinridge (CSA) and Issa Breckenridge
Sister of Eleanor 'Ella' Desha Chalkley (Breckenridge); Desha Breckenridge; Robert Jefferson Breckenridge; Mary Curry Desha Breckenridge; Campbell Breckenridge and 1 other
Half sister of Lee Clay Breckenridge

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About Dr. Sophonisba Preston Breckenridge, JD, PhM, PhD

Dr. Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, JD, PhM, PhD

Dr. Breckinridge was an American activist, Progressive Era social reformer, social scientist and innovator in higher education.


Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge was a member of the political active and social elite Desha family and Breckinridge family. She was the daughter of Issa Desha Breckinridge who was the second wife of Colonel William Campbell Preston Breckinridge, a member of the U.S. Congress from Kentucky, editor and a lawyer. Her grandfather was the abolitionist minister Robert Jefferson Breckinridge. Her great-grandfather was John Breckinridge.

She was the second child of five: Eleanor Breckinridge Chalkley, Desha Breckinridge, Curry Desha Breckinridge.

NOTE: She was the sister-in-law of famed suffragette, Madeline Breckinridge (McDowell)

Education and Academic Innovator

She graduated from Wellesley College in 1888 and worked as a school teacher in Washington, DC teaching mathematics, before returning to Lexington to study law in her father's office. In 1895 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar.

Since she had no clients who would hire a woman lawyer, she left Kentucky after a few months to become a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Her thesis for the Ph.M. degree in 1897 was on "The Administration of Justice in Kentucky," and her Ph.D. in Political Science came in 1903 with her dissertation, "Legal Tender; A Study in English and American Monetary History." Meanwhile she was appointed in 1902 as assistant dean of women of the university, and the next year she was hired as an instructor. She was in 1904 the first woman to graduate from the law school of the University of Chicago and the first woman to be admitted to Order of the Coif, an honorary legal scholastic society. A news writer in Paris, Kentucky announced her achievement and gushed that Breckinridge "is considered one of the most brilliant women in the South."

In 1907 she moved into the Hull House and began in earnest to work with the first leaders in the Chicago settlement house movement on issues such as vocational training, housing, juvenile delinquency and truancy. Breckinridge worked with Vassar College graduate and social reformer Julia Lathrop, social gospel minister Graham Taylor (founder of the settlement house, Chicago Commons) and others to create the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, becoming its first (and only) dean. By 1920, Breckinridge and Lathrop had convinced the Board to merge the School into the University of Chicago, forming the Graduate School of Social Service Administration. By 1927 the faculty of this new academic unit created the scholarly journal Social Service Review which remains the premier journal in the field of social work. Breckinridge was one of the founding editors and worked on its publication every year until her death in 1948.

By 1909 she had become an assistant professor of social economy, and over ten years later (1920) she finally convinced her male colleagues of her research abilities and earned tenure as associate professor at the University of Chicago. From 1923-1929 she was also dean in the College of Arts, Literature and Science. She earned full professorship in 1925, and in 1929 she served as the dean of pre-professional social service students and Samuel Deutsch professor of public welfare administration until her retirement from the faculty in 1933.

"My record there was not distinguished," she wrote, "but the faculty and students were kind, and the fact that the law school, like the rest of the University...accepted men and women students on equal terms publicly".

She was awarded honorary degrees by:

  • Oberlin College in 1919
  • University of Kentucky in 1925
  • Tulane University in 1939
  • University of Louisville in 1940

The University of Chicago currently houses undergraduate students in Breckinridge House, named after Sophonisba Breckinridge, where students celebrate "Sophie Day" in the early spring.

Social Activism

When she obtained an appointment as a part-time professor in the Department of Household Administration which was a part of the Sociology department, in 1907, she also became a resident of Hull House. As a resident of Hull House until 1920, she became active in several causes, including:

  • Women's Suffrage
  • African-American civil rights (she helped establish the NAACP)
  • Labor
  • Immigration
  • Children's protection and labor laws reform
  • Progressive Party
  • Pacifism

When the women of Chicago gained limited voting rights in 1913, Breckinridge was one of eight women that ran for "alderwomanic" office.

1933 Montevideo Conference

Breckinridge was the first woman U.S. representative to a high-level international conference, the 1933 Montevideo Conference.

Publications and Organization Involvement


  • National American Woman's Suffrage Association (Vice President)
  • American Social Science Association (ASSA)
  • National Conference of Social Workers (NCSW)
  • American Association of Social Workers (AASW)
  • Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy (CSCP)


On July 30, 1948 Sophonisba Breckinridge died from a perforated ulcer and arteriosclerosis, aged 82.

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Dr. Sophonisba Preston Breckenridge, JD, PhM, PhD's Timeline

April 1, 1866
Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, United States
July 30, 1948
Age 82
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Lexington Cemetery, 833 West Main Street, Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, 40508, United States