Born on 6 September 1860 in Cedarville, USA, Jane Addams was the youngest of eight children born to Sarah Addams and John Huey Addams, a prominent and successful farm owner. Her childhood was marked by the death of her mother when she was two years old, and then by illness. At the age of four, Jane contracted tuberculosis of the bone, which deformed her spine and left her with lifelong disabilities, including a limp.
Her young age was also marked by many deaths in her family and by the time Jane was eight years old, there were only four children left in the Addams sibling group.
Jane Addams took refuge in reading and studying and planned to become a doctor, working with the disadvantaged. Her father encouraged her and Jane began studying at Rockford Female Seminary. It was there that she met Ellen Starr, who was to be her first romantic relationship. Struggling with depression, Jane abandoned her studies and embarked on a long journey to Europe. An avid reader, she drew energy and inspiration from her reading, particularly from the books of Leo Tolstoy.
After visiting the social centre at Toynbee Hall in England, Jane Addams decided, with Ellen, to create a "settlement house" (a community of solidarity bringing together and mixing social classes). In 1889, they founded Hull House in Chicago, the first settlement house in the United States and an establishment dedicated to social mixing, neighbourhood life, social research, analysis and debate.
In 1894, she was the first woman to be appointed sanitary inspector in Chicago and launched a "rubbish war". With the help of the women of Hull House, a thousand health and hygiene violations were reported to the city council within a year, and the collection of rubbish helped to fight disease.
Alongside her activities, Jane Addams wrote essays, including Democracy and Social Ethics in 1902, and gave many lectures around the country. Jane was involved in many pacifist movements. Convinced that democracy, social justice and peace must advance together, she was strongly opposed to any war, which she described as a cataclysm. In 1915, she joined the Woman's Peace Party and became its president. She was elected president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. In the 1920s, she fought within the association to ban poison gas and war.
In 1931, Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her social and pacifist actions, and the award was almost unanimously acclaimed. She donated the endowment to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Jane Addams died on 21 May 1935.