Julia Lathrop was born in 1858 in Rockford, Illinois. Her father was a U.S. Congressmember and her mother was a supporter of women’s rights. Lathrop attended Rockford Female Seminary for a year and then graduated from Vassar College in 1880.
In 1890, Lathrop moved into Hull House. While at Hull House, she served on the Illinois Board of Charities, where she inspected county institutions for the sick, the homeless, and the insane. Lathrop also helped to found the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, which was eventually incorporated into the University of Chicago as its School of Social Service Administration.
In 1912, Congress created the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor. Jane Addams and her network of supporters lobbied President William Howard Taft to appoint Lathrop as head of the Bureau. Lathrop became the first woman in charge of a federal government agency.
Under Lathrop’s direction, the Children’s Bureau conduced studies of maternal and infant mortality and published pamphlets advising mothers on the proper care of children. In addition, the Bureau worked to enact federal child labor laws. Lathrop also was instrumental in the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act in 1921. The act provided federal funding for state programs to educate women about maternal and infant health. The Sheppard-Towner Act was the first federal welfare legislation to be enacted in the United States.
After retiring from the Bureau in the early 1920s, Lathrop returned to Rockford, Illinois, where she remained active in the women’s reform movement. For six years, she worked with the Child Welfare Committee of the United Nation’s Commission on the Welfare of Children and Young Persons. Lathrop died in Rockford in 1932.