Wilbur C. Phillips (1880 — 1967) — Advocate of Child Health and Hygiene and Founder of the National Social Unit Organization

Wilbur Carey Phillips was born March 10, 1880, in Nunda, New York, and educated at Colgate Academy and Harvard University, graduating from the latter in 1904. He worked as secretary of the New York Milk Committee, 1907-1911 and as secretary of the Milwaukee Child Welfare Commission, 1911-1912. In both positions he concentrated on improving child health by securing clean milk and educating mothers in the principles of child hygiene. Years later his concept of an “educational health center” was cited in VISTA publications.

Drawing on his experience in these two positions, he began to develop a concept of community organization that he called the “social unit plan.” His plan, completed in 1914, envisioned a democratic neighborhood structure through which local residents could participate directly in the control of community affairs without sacrificing any of the advantages of technical expertise. With the support of individuals such as Herbert Croly, Dr. Richard Cabot, and Dr. S. S. Goldwater, he established the National Social Unit Organization (NSUO) with himself as executive director. The NSUO decided to sponsor a three-year demonstration project and selected Cincinnati, Ohio as the site for the experiment. Phillips headed the Mohawk-Brighton Social Unit Organization in a 31-block area of the city from 1917-1920. Despite its success in improving neighborhood health care, the city withdrew its support and the project was terminated.

Determined to continue his development of the social unit plan, Phillips turned down positions that would have distracted a part of his energies and spent the remainder of his life as an unsalaried “social inventor” (the term was applied to him by Wesley C. Mitchell). Hoping to establish the social unit on a larger scale than it had been tested in Cincinnati, he began to emphasize its economic potential as a way of organizing consumers. He set up a “Committee for Guiding Consumers in Their Purchase of Foods” to support his program. In 1927, under the leadership of Fred M. Feiker and Leland R. Robinson, the committee became the Consumers and Producers Foundation but it was short-lived, succumbing to the stock market crash of 1929. In 1933 he reported to the Social Science Research Council on “A Study of Criteria for Judging National Consumption” at the invitation of the Council’s president, Wesley C. Mitchell. Again he emphasized the importance of social units conveying to consumers the expertise of scientists and technicians.

In 1940 he published Adventuring for Democracy, in which he described the development of the social unit experiment in Cincinnati. Later he organized the Social Unit Institute as a non-profit research and educational body to promote development and application of the social unit plan.

Lack of adequate financial support, complicated by the need to care for his ailing wife, Elsie La Grange Cole Phillips, limited Phillips’ activities during the last 20 years of his life. He died in New York City in 1967. The Phillips had one daughter, Joan.

SourceWilbur C. and Elsie C. PhillipsPapers. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN.  More information is available at: https://www.lib.umn.edu/swha

 

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