Returning to the USC School of Social Work after a stint as the inaugural director of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research, Kathleen Ell had a burning desire to pursue a rigorous research career.
During a meeting with Dean Marilyn Flynn, she struck a deal: If she wasn’t fully funded by a well-regarded federal agency in three years, she would go back to teaching early morning classes. Despite having never served as principal investigator on a research project, Ell fought through dozens of rejection letters and successfully established herself as a pioneering researcher on issues such as quality of life, chronic illness, depression and access to health care.
“If there was ever a person who deserved an opportunity to express her passion, it was Kathy,” Flynn said during a recent ceremony to honor Ell with the Knee/Wittman Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
“She does honor to the Knee/Wittman Award in the impact she has had on vulnerable populations. She has never stopped, she has never rested.”
The award, one of the highest honors bestowed by the organization, recognizes individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the field of health and mental health research and practice.
As the Ernest P. Larson Professor of Health, Ethnicity, and Poverty, Ell has secured more than $17 million in federal funding during the past 20 years to explore medical, psychological and social factors that affect the health and well-being of low-income individuals.
“You’ve made sure that your research was focused on the most vulnerable populations, the most underserved populations, so you could figure out how to best serve those who needed the most help,” Angelo McClain, CEO of NASW and president of the NASW Foundation, said during the award ceremony.
He lauded Ell’s groundbreaking clinical research on cancer screening, major depression, psychological distress, and morbidity and mortality, as well as her pursuit of interdisciplinary partnerships and a recent focus on issues faced by military service members, veterans and their families.
“It is very important to NASW that we are able to be here to give you this honor and to give you the proper due respect that your distinguished career merits,” McClain said.
After accepting the award, Ell described several moments that inspired her lifelong commitment to improving the lives of people in need.
As a young girl, she overheard a group of church leaders discussing strategies to get rid of a new minister who wanted to open the congregation to blacks. She promptly marched into the room and reprimanded the board of elders, two pastors and her father, who served as president of the congregation.
As a recent college graduate and newly minted social work assistant at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Ell met her first patient, an older black woman with cancer who only had one living family member, an ill sister who could not visit. Ell visited her daily in the hospital’s basement ward for months, until she came to work one day and found an empty bed.
“I was 23 years old—I ran off and I cried,” she said. “But that experience only confirmed who I was and what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it.”
After earning her master’s degree, Ell took a position in the coronary care unit at the LAC+USC Medical Center, where she noticed a link between heart disease, depression and death.
Physicians encouraged her to pursue research on the topic, and she eventually published one of the first studies linking depression and mortality among patients with heart problems, a finding that has since been extended to other chronic conditions.
In the following decades, she completed her doctorate in social work at UCLA, became the first social worker to receive research funding from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Heart Association, and led numerous clinical trials to test strategies to improve health and mental health care for low-income individuals, particularly those with racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Now in her early 70s, Ell shows no sign of slowing down. She recently received a $1.3 million award to explore whether community members trained to provide basic health information and support can help low-income, culturally diverse patients with chronic illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes navigate the complex health care system.
“I haven’t lost my enthusiasm or interest,” she said. “What I’m most concerned about is we don’t have enough people doing research within the social work profession and publishing in the journals that will take action. Yes, it’s fine to publish in social work journals, but I have learned that I have to get into leading medical journals because that’s where the impact comes from. Without influencing the medical profession, we aren’t going to be able to influence the health care system in this country.”
Several attendees at the award ceremony said Ell exemplified the ideals of the namesakes of the award, Ruth Knee and Milton Wittman, two pioneering social work scholars who felt the profession needed to emphasize its traditions, accomplishments and purpose. Friedner Wittman, Milton’s son, described Knee as a meticulous and determined researcher and said his father fiercely sought respect for social work compared to other mental health professions such as psychology and psychiatry.
“He was an example of that sort of fire-in-the-belly social worker who has a mission and sees what needs to happen, some warp in the human experience that needs fixing,” he said, adding that he sees many of those qualities in Ell. “The recipient today is an absolutely perfect example of why the Knee/Wittman Awards were put together and why it is so important to keep in mind why we are here and what it is we are doing.”