Thomas Brigham

1924 – 1999

International leader and crusader for human dignity

While earning his bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State College and his MSW at UC Berkeley in the late 1940s, Thomas Brigham worked for the YMCA and the International Institute of San Francisco. That experience greatly influenced him to help disadvantaged and foreign-born youth to survive and prosper in United States society. This training also awakened his interest, in and commitment to, international social work and social work education. After receiving his MSW he served as field instructor for the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

Brigham was the first social worker employed to serve on the Fresno State College faculty in 1953 where he developed one of the early undergraduate majors in social welfare. In 1961 he earned a sabbatical leave and accepted his first United Nations appointment to assist with the development of social work education in Indonesia. When he returned to Fresno he worked with Ernest Witte to develop the first graduate schools of social work in the California state system at Fresno, Sacramento and San Diego. He then became the Dean of the School of Social Work at Fresno State College.

Under his leadership Fresno developed a graduate curriculum and field internships to educate students as generalist practitioners. These skills were desperately needed by impoverished families and communities of diverse ethnicities in the San Joaquin Valley between Bakersfield and Sacramento. Hundreds of students graduated and helped to develop the wide range of social services needed in central California, helping to improve the quality of life for farm workers.

Brigham always demonstrated great courage and conviction in meeting human needs. He supported faculty in working with Caesar Chavez on behalf of better wages and working conditions for farm workers. He was among the first in the San Joaquin Valley to speak out against the war in Vietnam. And in 1971 when the University administration was firing social work faculty because of their social activism, he resigned his deanship in protest. The UN immediately asked him to develop social work education in the Philippines. On completion of that assignment he returned to Fresno and continued to work as a professor until he suffered a stroke and retired in 1986.

During the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s Brigham published an important study of farm laborers in Fresno County as well as several articles on international social work. He presented papers at UN sponsored conferences in Italy and Scotland, and continued his committee work for the council on social work education and the western interstate commission of higher education. His influence on the development of sociological and social work education for central California as well as the Philippines and Indonesia was extraordinary.

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