At 17, Jane enrolled at Rockford Female Seminary, where her father was a trustee, though she had hoped to go to Smith College and earn a liberal arts degree. Her teachers at Rockford were sure she would make a good overseas missionary, but Jane resolutely refused.
Graduating at the top of her class in 1881, she moved to Philadelphia to begin studying at the Women's Medical College, at a time when few women were doctors. However, plagued by depression and problems stemming from curvature of the spine, she withdrew from college six months later.
She then agreed to join her step-mother on a Grand European Tour, but to her escort's dismay, she seemed far more interested in the plight of the poor in European cities, than in finding a husband or looking at cathedrals. Jane returned to America at 23, still unwell and depressed at the apparent lack of direction in her life.
At 27, she revisited Europe, this time with a friend from Rockford, Ellen Gates Starr, who was destined to become a life-long friend and partner. After visiting settlements in London's East End staffed by Oxford undergraduates, they returned to America determined to start something similar of their own. Having finally found a sense of purpose, Jane's health improved dramatically. The two women used their savings to buy a house in the worst of Chicago's slums.
At first they were met with curiosity from their neighbors, but their deeds spoke volumes, and they were soon drawn into the teeming life of the district. Using their education and upper-middle class social connections, they proved highly efficient at raising awareness and money for their cause. They learned to deal effectively with politicians and the media to improve sanitation, street lighting and housing in their area. They provided day-care for women working in factories, fair legal representation for local people, and meeting space for union organizers. Addams recognized the high cost of assimilation into American culture for immigrants, especially older ones, so she set up a museum and arranged for an arts and crafts center, musicians and story-tellers to help preserve ethnic traditions, while at the same time providing English translators and instructors to those who requested them. She also refused to support Prohibition, arguing that saloons provided an important gathering space for the community, despite the many problems that arose from alcoholism.
The size of the settlement and the scope of its work grew steadily, until it was second in size only to the University of Chicago. Co-ops were formed to purchase housing and coal at cheaper rates. The volunteer staff grew by the hundreds, and included women such as Florence Kelley, Frances Perkins and Mary Eliza McDowell, who were to go on and become reformers in their own right. Meanwhile, Addams published ten books on reform and in 1917, traveled to the Netherlands to beg the British and German Prime Ministers to submit the war to arbitration. Her involvement in peace efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, and at the time of her death, there were settlement houses in every large American city.