Skip Navigation
Lester Frank Ward<

Lester Frank Ward

June 18, 1841 — April 18, 1913


I have always maintained thatsociology is a science of liberation and not of restraint.
L. F. Ward, Pure Sociology (1914)

Lester Frank Ward, described by some of the father of American sociology, was born June 18, 1841 in Joliet, Illinois, the son of Justus Ward and Silence Rolph. The Ward family was not wealthy so there was no extra money with which to send Lester to school for a formal education. Instead, Ward was self educated in his youth. Some reports indicate that Ward taught himself five languages. His studies also included mathematics and geology.

The Ward family moved from Illinois to Myersburg, Pennsylvania while Frank was still a boy. By day Ward joined his brother Cyrenus in their hub, or wagon wheel, shop. By night he devoured books and developed a craving for knowledge and study. Some believe that Ward's childhood spent in poverty, followed later by hard labor in the wagon shop, instilled in Ward an outrage at society's injustice and inequalities.

In the early 1860's Ward attended classes at the Susquehana Collegiate Institute in Towanada. On August 13, 1862 he married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Caroline Bought (some sources give her name as "Vought"). When the Civil War broke out, Ward joined a local Pennsylvania regiment and was seriously wounded at Chancellorville. Like many soldiers away from home to fight in the war, Ward kept a journal. This journal, which was found many years after his death, was published (and is still available today) under the title, Young Ward's Diary: A Human and Eager Record of the Years Between 1860 and 1870 as They Were Lived. Some of his thinking about society and inequality developed further during his Civil War experience and the years that followed.

After the war he began working for the federal government while continuing his self-education. From 1865 to 1881 Ward was employed by the United States Treasury Department. After many years of saving and waiting, Ward finally fulfilled his dream when he started to study at Columbian College (now The George Washington University) from which he received the A.B. degree in 1869, the LL.B. degree in 1871, and the A.M. degree in 1872.

In 1882 Ward was appointed Assistant Geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, a post he held for two years. He served the USGS for the remainder of his career in the federal government, receiving promotions to Geologist in 1889, and Paleontologist in 1892.

In addition to his USGS work, Ward was appointed Honorary Curator of the Department of Fossil Plants in the US National Museum in 1882. He remainded in charge of tha national collections of fossil plants until his retirement from the USGS in 1905.

After a career in the federal government, Ward embarked upon a new career. In 1905 he wrote to James Quayle Dealey of Brown University to inquire about the possibilty of teaching at Brown. Dealey responded favorably. After negotiations with the University's President, William Faunce, Ward was offered a teaching position in late 1905. He moved to Providence in the fall of 1906. Rafferty described Ward's move: "Ward's arrival at Brown University was to be the climx of his tellectual career, the highlight of a long journey studying and writing about social and scientific subjects."

Ward is best remembered for his pioneering work in sociology. Between 1883 and his death in 1913, he completed several important works including Dynamic Sociology (1883), Outlines of Sociology (1898), Pure Sociology (1903), and Applied Sociology (1906). Ward's most important contribution to sociology was his insistence that social laws, once identified, can be harnessed and controlled.

Ward supported the idea of equality of women as well as the equality of all classes and races in society. He believed in universal education as a means of achieving this equality. Many of his ideas were unpopular among his male contemporaries, but would probably play better to an audience today.

In the summer of 1905, Ward and a number of prominent colleagues began corresponding with sociologists around the country about the possibility of forming a new society specifically for sociologists. In December 1905, as part of the Annual Meeting of the American Economics Association, Ward and others met in Baltimore to debate the issue. Ultimately they acted to form a new society, the American Sociological Society. Ward was surprised when he was selected to serve as the first President of the new society for 1906 and 1907.

As President of the American Sociological Society in 1906 and 1907, Ward gave an address at the annual meeting of the society each year. The text of Ward's two Presidential Addresses is available through the following links:

Beginning in 1911, Ward's health was in decline. He continued working and teaching until shortly before his death in Washington, DC on April 18, 1913.

In Ward's boyhood home of Myersburg, Pennsylvania, an historical marker stands today in honor of his roots and his contributions to sociology:

Lester Frank Ward

I am an apostle of human progress,
and I believed that this could be greatly accelerated
by society itself."

--Lester Frank Ward

To learn more about Lester Frank Ward, check out the following items and resources:

  • Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7321 - Lester Frank Ward Papers, 1882 - 1913, with Related Materials to Circa 1965.
  • Upon his death in 1913, Ward willed his personal library and many of his papers to Brown University. The Ward materials at the John Hay Library at Brown University in Providence, RI (MS 90-23) encompass about 5,400 items including scrapbooks and portfolios of personal papers, notes, transcripts, and proofs of published works, and a diary in French (1860-1869). This group is individually catalogued. Correspondence (1865-1913) includes about 5,800 items chiefly to Ward concerning professional matters. Less than half of this group is catalogued individually; the remainder being accessible through a register. The two main series, the correspondence and the writings, are available on microfilm. The latter series is subdivided into unpublished writings and manuscripts of published monographs.  
  • Barnes, Harry Elmer. “Two Representative Contributions of Sociology to Political Theory: The Doctrines of William Graham Sumner and Lester Frank Ward.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Sep., 1919), pp. 150-170.
  • Burnham, John C. “Lester Frank Ward as Natural Scientist” American Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Autumn, 1954), pp. 259-265.  
  • Burnham, John C. 1956. Lester Frank Ward in American Thought. Washington DC: Public Affairs Press.
  • Cape, Emily P. 1922. Lester Frank Ward: A Personal Sketch. New York: Putnam.
  • Chugerman, Samuel 1939. Lester Frank Ward, The American Aristotle: A Summary and Interpretation of his Sociology. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.
  • Commager, H.S., ed. 1967. Lester Ward and the Welfare State. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Dealey, James Q. et al. “Lester Frank Ward.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jul., 1913), pp. 61-78
  • Dealey, James Quayle. “Masters of Social Science: Lester Frank Ward.” Social Forces, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Dec., 1925), pp. 257-272.
  • Finlay, Barbara. “Lester Frank Ward as a Sociologist of Gender: A New Look at His Sociological Work.” Gender and Society, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 251-265.
  • Fleming, James E. “The Role of Government in a Free Society: The Conception of Lester Frank Ward.” Social Forces, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Mar., 1946), pp. 257-266.
  • Gillette, John M. “Critical Points in Ward's Pure Sociology.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jul., 1914), pp. 31-67.
  • Largey, Gale P. Lester F. Ward: A Life's Journey. 2005.  This is an excellent 108-minute DVD that documents the life and ideas of Ward.
  • Mihanovich, C. S. “Ward's Educational Theories.” Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Nov., 1946), pp. 140-153.
  • Nelson, Alvin F. “Lester Ward's Conception of the Nature of Science” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Oct., 1972), pp. 633-638.
  • Rafferty, Edward C. Apostle of Human Progress: Lester Frank Ward and American Political Thought, 1841-1913 (American Intellectual Culture Series), 2003.
  • Rice, Stuart A. “The Spirit of Ward in Sociology.” Science, New Series, Vol. 84, No. 2174 (Aug., 1936), pp. 192-194.
  • Small, Albion W. et al. “The Letters of Albion W. Small to Lester F. Ward.” Social Forces, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Dec., 1933), pp. 163-173.
  • Stern, B. J., editor. 1935. Young Ward's Diary: A Human and Eager Record of the Years between 1860 and 1870 as They Were Lived in the Vicinity of the Little Town of Towanda, Pennsylvania; In the Field as a Rank and File Soldier in the Union Army; and Later in the Nation's Capital. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1935 (first edition).
  • Stern, B. J. 1938. “The Ward-Ross Correspondence.” American Sociological Review 3:362-401; 1946, 11:593-605; 1947, 12:703-20; 1948, 13:82-94; 1949, 14:88-119.
  • Stern, Bernhard J. “The Liberal Views of Lester F. Ward” The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Aug., 1950), pp. 102-104.
  • Ward, Lester F. “Feeling and Function as Factors in Human Development.” Science, Vol. 1, No. 17 (Oct., 1880), pp. 210-211.
  • Ward, Lester Frank. 1881. Guide to the Flora of Washington and Vicinity.
  • Ward, Lester F. 1883. Dynamic Sociology. New York: Appleton.
  • Ward, Lester F. “Mind as a Social Factor.” Mind, Vol. 9, No. 36 (Oct., 1884), pp. 563-573.
  • Ward, Lester F. “Why Is Water Considered Ghost-Proof?” Science, Vol. 5, No. 100 (Jan., 1885), p. 2.
  • Ward, Lester F. “The Ginkgo-Tree.” Science, Vol. 5, No. 124 (Jun., 1885), pp. 495-497.
  • Ward, Lester F. “A Convenient System of River Nomenclature.” Science, Vol. 6, No. 140 (Oct., 1885), pp. 321-322.
  • Ward, Lester F. “A National University, Its Character and Purpose.” Science, Vol. 18, No. 459 (Nov., 1891), pp. 281-282.
  • Ward, L.F. 1892. The Psychic Factors of Civilization. Boston: Ginn.
  • Ward, Lester F. “The Nature of Pleasure.” International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Oct., 1897), pp. 100-101.
  • Ward, Lester F. 1903. Pure Sociology. New York: Macmillan.
  • Ward, Lester F. “The Pteridospermaphyta.” Science, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 496 (Jul., 1904), pp. 25-26.
  • Ward, Lester F. “An Example in Nomenclature.” Science, New Series, Vol. 21, No. 525 (Jan., 1905), pp. 110-111.
  • Ward, Lester F., "Social Class in the Light of Modern Sociological Theory." The American Journal of Sociology, vol. xiii (March, 1908).
  • Ward, Lester Frank. Glimpses of the Cosmos: A Mental Autobiography. 1913-1918 (6 volumes):
    Vol. I, Adolescence to Manhood
    Vol. II, Scientific Career Inaugurated
    Vol. III, Dynamic Sociology

<< Back to ASA Past President Listing Page