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Golda M. Edinburg, 87; elevated role of social work in hospitals

Ms. Edinburg helped introduce services such as counseling and education for families to hospital care.

Golda M. Edinburg was a young psychiatric social worker for underserved populations in Boston and Chelsea when she was recruited in 1956 to work at McLean Hospital in Belmont.

Unwilling to be just a staff social worker, she told the hospital director she would accept the offer only if she could run a social work department at McLean. Such a department did not exist and was uncommon for hospitals at the time, but McLean agreed to allow Ms. Edinburg to guide its creation. Under her direction, McLean’s social work department became an early model for hospitals around the country.

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“What she did at McLean was really ensure that social work was a vital part of the clinical team, that social workers are trained master’s-level clinicians who have a role both in the hospital and after a patient’s discharge,’’ said Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and a former state Department of Mental Health commissioner.

Ms. Edinburg, who was nationally recognized for helping professionalize the field of social work, died Feb. 9 in her Palm Beach, Fla., home of cancer that had metastasized. She was 87 and formerly lived in Brookline for many years.

She worked at McLean from 1956 until retiring in 1993, the longest a social worker has served as director of a social work department at a private psychiatric hospital in the United States, according to the National Association of Social Workers.

“Golda not only made sure that social workers were involved in discharge planning, but that they became part of the treatment,’’ said Sudders, who considered Ms. Edinburg a mentor since the late 1970s.

Services that Ms. Edinburg helped introduce to hospital care included counseling and education for families, which she knew played a critical role in the recovery of each patient, Sudders said.

A Worcester native, Ms. Edinburg received a bachelor’s degree in 1944 from Massachusetts State College, forerunner of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Two years later, she graduated with a master’s in social work from the Boston University School of Social Work.

She began working with the disenfranchised as a psychiatric social worker in the Bedford veterans hospital, a senior case worker at Beth Israel Hospital, and a supervisor of social work at the Naval Hospital in Chelsea, according to the National Association of Social Workers.

“She was a career gal from the minute she graduated from college until she retired in 1993,’’ said her niece Ellen Kazin of Waltham.

“She was also a person who had very clear ideas of what was right and wrong,’’ said Kazin, who added that “it was very important to her to be involved in social justice issues and to work with and for those who did not have a voice.’’

Sudders said Ms. Edinburg “really saw that people who were reliant on the public sector weren’t getting the same level of care.’’

Along with her trailblazing work developing standards for social workers within the clinical framework at McLean, Ms. Edinburg remained focused on social justice.

From 1971 to 1986, she volunteered on a board that, under her leadership, secured funding to develop the Metropolitan Beaverbrook Mental Health and Retardation Center in Waltham to provide care to those diagnosed with mental illness and mental retardation.

After it opened in 1977, Ms. Edinburg served on the center’s board until 1986 in leadership roles including president and vice president.

In 2002, the facility, then known as the Center for Mental Health and Retardation, was renamed the Edinburg Center.

Though she was close to her nieces and nephews, Ms. Edinburg was always modest about her achievements, so the honor took them by surprise.

“When I was at the ceremony, I said to her, ‘This is quite the achievement. Who knew?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t think anyone would care,’ ’’ said Kazin.

“Her work was never about her,’’ Kazin said. “We were just so glad, as her family, that when the Edinburg Center was named, it was during her lifetime and she got to be part of it.’’

Ms. Edinburg also was among those who advocated for a bill, which the state Legislature approved in late 1981, that allowed social workers to be reimbursed by insurance companies for administering certain types of mental health therapy.

To be eligible for reimbursement, licensed independent clinical social workers had to have a master’s degree and three years of supervised clinical experience. Many in the psychiatric field opposed the bill, but advocates said the change would provide greater access to services because patients would no longer have to pay entirely out of pocket for counseling from social workers.

“No matter what the political and professional problems involved in vendorship have been, this is the time for burying the hatchet and building our bridges to work with others,’’ Ms. Edinburg, who was on an advisory committee working out review procedures for the new system, told the Globe in April 1982.

According to the Edinburg Center’s website, Ms. Edinburg also wrote scholarly works and was the recipient of a bounty of honors, including a lifetime achievement award from the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. In 1995, the National Association of Social Workers presented her with a Knee/Wittman Award for outstanding achievement.

After retiring, she traveled, played bridge, went to Broadway shows, and reveled in being a part of the lives of her five grandnieces and grandnephews. She also maintained many friendships, including with colleagues she had mentored, former patients at McLean, and two friends she had known since kindergarten.

In addition to her niece Ellen Kazin, Ms. Edinburg leaves another niece, two nephews, and extended family.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Levine Chapels in Brookline.

Ms. Edinburg continued to crusade even in retirement. Sudders was at work one day when Ms. Edinburg called, incensed to have found that caretakers at the building where she lived did not receive health insurance.

“She was beyond the pale about it. She said, ‘I don’t care if people won’t talk to me in the hallways. This is outrageous.’ ’’ said Sudders, who helped Ms. Edinburg find information she needed to address the issue.

“She just did not rest. There was always something more to be done,’’ Sudders said. “It was the Golda movement, and you wanted to be part of that movement.’’

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