A Self-described “Ugly Duckling” Who Changed the World

Image is a profile portrait of Jane Addams. Her hair is in a large bun at her hairline and she wears a high-collared lace blouse under a red jacket or dress, possibly made of velvet.

Childhood in America during the mid-1800s was difficult and often not survived. Jane Addams was one of the lucky ones. She survived a rare illness and subsequent chronic health challenges, but she struggled to find her place in a changing world. Today, she might be called a late-bloomer. Yet, this late bloomer accomplished more in her lifetime than many of the most ambitious people.

Early Life

On September 6, 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois, Laura Jane Addams was born. She was the eighth of nine children, John H. Addams and Sarah Addams (nee Weber). Her father, the prosperous owner of a flour mill and a sawmill, had served in the state senate, fought in the Civil War, and was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. 

Jane was two years old when her mother died while pregnant with her ninth child. Her older sisters took care of her and the younger siblings.

Potts Disease

In 1865, Jane contracted tuberculosis of the spine, a rare condition also called Potts’s disease. It caused a severe curvature of her spine, resulting in chronic pain and a limp. A defect that caused her considerable shame.

I prayed with all my heart that the ugly pigeon-toed little girl, whose crooked back obliged her to walk with her head held very much upon one side, would never be pointed out to these visitors (her father’s visitors) as the daughter of this fine man.”

Twenty Years at Hull House, Jane Addams 

She later discovered her father had no such shame when he publicly made a great show of tipping his top hat and bowing deeply to her. This enabled her to set her shame aside.

The disease also left her vulnerable to other illnesses over the course of her lifetime.

Still, by her own accounts, she happily played outdoors and loved visiting her father’s flour mill. 

By the time Jane turned eight, four of her siblings had died. And her father married the widow of a miller in Freeport, Anna Hosteler.

Lesson Remembered

Jane adored her father and in her autobiography confessed to remembering a rare time he chided her. She had a new cloak when she was eight years old. This cloak was more gorgeous than anything she’d ever worn. She put it on one Sunday before church and stood before her father for his approval. He told her it was, in fact, much prettier than any cloak the other girls in Sunday school had. He told her to wear her old cloak. It would keep her warm enough but not make the other girls feel bad. Jane did as he advised, but “without inner consent.” She worked up the courage and asked him what they could do to make things more equal. He told her they might never right the inequity of clothing. But people might be equal in things like education and religion, and that it was stupid to wear the sort of clothes that made it hard to have equality even there. 

She wanted to be and do something useful in the world. 


A voracious reader, the stories of Charles Dickens and her stepmother’s kindness toward the poor, inspired Jane. She decided she wanted to be a doctor and wanted to attend the new college for women, Smith College, in Massachusetts. Her father required her to stay closer to home.

She attended Rockford Female Seminary (Now Rockford University) in Rockford, Illinois. 

Graduating valedictorian in 1881, she received a collegiate certificate and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. She still hoped to attend Smith and get a proper B.A. 

Then her father died unexpectedly from appendicitis. 

Studying Medicine

Jane moved to Philadelphia that fall with her stepmother, her sister, Alice, and Alice’s husband, Harry. Alice and Jane planned to begin their medical educations. Harry, already trained in medicine, did further studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jane completed her first year at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, but her health became an issue. She was in and out of the hospital. 

 Her stepmother also became ill. So the entire family moved back to Illinois.

Recovery and Travel

Harry performed spinal surgery and straightened her back. Afterwards, he recommended that she not continue her studies but suggested she travel instead.

Once Jane’s health stabilized, she traveled and studied in Europe for twenty-one months. Then she spent another couple of years reading and writing and pondering what to do with her life. She decided she did not have to become a doctor to help the poor.

During a second tour to Europe with her Rockford classmate, Ellen G. Starr, Jane visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. This visit helped her decide to open a similar house in an underprivileged area of Chicago.


Photograph of Hull House museum shows a red-brick building with tall arched windows. There is a wrap around porch with pale yellow columns. A green metal fence separates the photographer from the house.

Hull House

In 1889, Jane and her romantic partner, Ellen, leased a large home built by Charles Hull, at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets of Chicago. They moved in, hoping the house would become a center for higher civic and social life. They wanted to provide educational opportunities for the poor.

The run-down mansion needed repairs and upgrades. At first, Jane paid for the repairs and operating costs. But gifts from private individuals allowed Jane to reduce the proportion of her financial support for its operations. Several wealthy women became long-term donors to the House.

A Lesson in Sociology

Photograph of a gray-haired Jane Adams with middle grade students sitting on porch steps and across a brick wall above her.

In 1892, the University of Chicago established a sociology department. Hull House welcomed the first group of professors. They worked closely with Hull House.

Jane compiled a collection of essays written by Hull House residents and workers. Those essays helped shape and define the interests and methodologies of the Chicago School.

In 1893, she worked with Hull House faculty and a fellow House resident to pass legislation “banning sweat shops and employment of children.”

In 1895, Jan had a bout of typhoid fever. After she recovered, she went abroad with her second and lifelong romantic partner, Mary Rozet Smith. They visited settlement houses in London, traveled through Russia, Poland, and Germany before returning to Chicago.

Growth and Change

Eventually, the house became home to twenty-five other women. The settlement grew to include thirteen buildings and a playground. They housed a day nursery, a gymnasium, a community kitchen, a boarding club for working girls. Hull House also offered college-level courses, arts and crafts training, and social worker training. They sponsored an early little-theatre group, the Hull House Players. They also had a camp near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. 

The establishment of the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois in 1963 forced the Hull House Association to move. The University demolished all the buildings except the house, Hull House. 

The Hull House Museum still stands today, its exhibits, educational events and projects are open to the public.

More Accomplishments

Over the next thirty-five years, Jane worked tirelessly on her mission to improve the lives of Chicago’s poor. The following is the briefest summary of her accomplishments during her lifetime.

They appointed her the sanitary inspector of Chicago’s 19th Ward, later she was appointed to Chicago’s Board of Education. 

Jane helped found the Juvenile Protective Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. She also helped found the Chicago School of Civil and Philanthropy, and the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers. And she was a charter member of the American Sociological Society. She actively supported the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She helped found the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 


She helped start the new Progressive Party and nominated Theodore Roosevelt for president during the party convention. Jane backed Pretend Wilson’s reelection effort. And she assisted Herbert Hoover in providing relief supplies to the women and children of enemy nations during World War I.

Jane’s intervention in Chicago’s 1905 Teamsters strike was praised by Supreme Court Justice Brewer when he said she’d make a good mayor of Chicago. 

She gave lectures at the University of Wisconsin. She spoke against girls being forced into sex slavery and lobbied for the passing laws forbidding child labor. 

Advocating for Peace

Jane gave lectures against America’s entry into the First World War. Jane spoke for peace at the ceremony, commemorating the construction of the Peace Palace at The Hague. She presided over the International Congress of Women at The Hague. Later, they elected her national chairperson of the Woman’s Peace Party.

She attended the second National Peace Congress and continued to advocate for peace. A practice that resulted in her negative press. The Daughters of the Revolution expelled her and once an audience booed her off the stage at Carnegie Hall.

And More

Jane became the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. They elected her the president of the International Committee of Women for a Permanent Peace and served from 1919 until her death.

She received Yale University’s first honorary degree ever awarded to a female. 

During all that, she also wrote and published five articles in the American Journal of Sociology and ten books (see the list below). 

Nobel Peace Prize

Jane Addams was admitted to a hospital in Baltimore on December 10, 1931. That same day, they awarded her the Nobel Prize for Peace in Oslo (cowinner with Nicholas Murray Butler). She donated her share of the prize money to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Illness and Death

Jane suffered her first heart attack in 1926 and health problems troubled her for the rest of her life. In 1934, she had a second heart attack. Her partner, Mary, nursed Jane at home, neglecting her own health.Mary died of pneumonia on February 22, after 40 years together. Jane was too ill to go down the two flights of steps to attend Smith’s memorial, which she could hear in her room.

Photograph of Jane Addams grave site. Her headstone is a tall spire shaped similar to the Washington monument.

In 1935, at age 74, Jane had an operation that revealed unsuspected cancer. She died three days later, on May 21, 1935. They buried her in her hometown, Cedarville, Illinois.


Jane Addams left a lasting legacy of social reform for the poor of Chicago. Yet historians and educators largely ignored or forgot her contributions as a reformer and pacifist. 

The US Postal service honored in the ‘Famous Americans Series’, postage stamps of 1940.

In 1973, they inducted Jane into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

In 1988, Mary Jo Deegan published Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918. Because of her focus on Jane’s influence on sociology, America honored Jane more and more. 

Today, there is a Jane Addams Memorial Park near Navy Pier in Chicago. There is a sculpture at Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens honoring Jane. 

On December 10, 2007, Illinois celebrated the first annual Jane Addams Day. A celebration initiated by a Dongola, Illinois schoolteacher and the Illinois Division of the American Association of University Women. 

 The state of Illinois renamed the Northwest Tollway as the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway. They inducted Jane into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2012. Also in that year, Thye inducted her into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBTQ history and people. 

She was one of the first twenty honorees awarded a bronze plaque on San Francisco’s rainbow Honor walk. And in 2015, Equality Forum named Jane as one of the 31 Icons of the 2015 LGBT History Month.


Jane Addams knew she was born of privilege. While she may have considered herself an ugly duckling and a late bloomer, she made certain she did all she could to help the poor, despite her physical ailments. Her work changed the lives of those who knew her and influenced the world.  

Had you heard of Jane Addams before reading this?

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Books by Jane Addams

  • Democracy and Social Ethics, The Macmillan Company, 1902.
  • Newer Ideals of Peace, The Macmillan Company, 1907.
  • The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, University of Illinois Press, 1909.
  • Twenty Years at Hull House, The Macmillan company, 1910.
  • The Long Road of Woman’s Memory, The Macmillan Company, 1916.
  • Peace and Bread in Time of War, The Macmillan Company, 1922.
  • A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, The Macmillan Company, 1923.
  • The Second Twenty Years at Hull House, The Macmillan Company, 1930.
  • The Excellent Becomes the Permanent, The Macmillan Company, 1932.
  • My Friend Julia Lathrop, The Macmillan Company, 1935.


Library of Congress Timelines 


Hull House Museum 




Image Credits

First image by George de Forest Brush, CCo, via Wikimedia Commons

Second image by Yvphotos, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Third image by  National Archives, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Final image by IvoShandor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


    1. I’m glad you found it fascinating, Terry. It’s an uncharacteristically long post. Trying to convey her accomplishments in a blog post was difficult.

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