Zdenka Buben

1895 – 1988

Pioneer in public health social work and in the development of professional standards

Born in France, Zdenka Buben moved to New York with her parents at the age of two. Her father worked in the fur business, and the family settled in the “Czech Quarter” of New York City’s lower east side. At age 13, Buben’s family moved to San Francisco, and shortly thereafter, to Alameda. She entered the University of California, Berkeley as a music major, but soon transferred to a department recruiting public health officers as quasi-nurse/quasi-social work trainees. Thus began Buben’s lifelong mission to improve the delivery of public health services.

Buben came to Los Angeles to help develop some of the services initiated in Alameda by establishing the Bureau of Social Work within the L.A. County Health Department. At the height of the Great Depression, medical care was scarce and poorly organized in Los Angeles. The political climate at the time was contentious, with private doctors fighting to prevent publicly funded medical care and facilities. In addition, the Health Department was in conflict with the physicians about how “curative” and preventive care should be provided and to whom. Buben was the chief medical social worker during this time, though she did not receive her social work degree from the University of Chicago until the 1940’s. Interestingly, during this period in health care, the social worker served as the “social worker-diagnostician” in the clinic, deciding which medical specialist the patient should see.

As the lead social worker, Buben was able to implement policies and practices that continue today. It was she who created a sliding fee scale for medical care so that the indigent could receive basic medical attention; up to this point, many were turned away. She was also a key in bridging the connections between the Health Department, the medical providers and the other social agencies, namely the Red Cross, and the Welfare Planning Council of Los Angeles. Dr. Emory Bogardus, the head of the newly created Sociology Department at the University of Southern California was one of the supporters of Buben’s work. Through it all, Buben continued to tirelessly advance the Health Department’s focus on prevention and care of communicable diseases, including tuberculosis and small pox.

It was Dr. Charles Schottland’s appointment of Buben to represent Los Angeles social workers at a statewide conference that inspired her to further her formal social work education. She mortgaged her home and took a leave of absence to train in Chicago. She then returned to the Health Department in Los Angeles and went on to lobby for social work standards and licensure while continuing her public health work. She was also a great force in developing programs and systems for optimal service delivery, and was well regarded as a fine administrator. We are fortunate to follow in her footsteps today.

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