Apr 09, 2024

The Roots of Occupational Therapy

Blog Article - Founders of OT

Occupational therapy, a profession that focuses on helping individuals develop, recover, or maintain daily living and work skills, has a rich history that intertwines with the evolution of modern medicine and societal changes. The roots of occupational therapy can be traced back to the early 20th century. During this time, the field emerged as a response to the mental health reform movement and the need for more humane treatment of individuals with mental illnesses. It was founded by a group of visionaries who recognized the therapeutic value of occupation—engaging in meaningful activities—in healing and rehabilitation.

Occupational therapy was developed by several pioneers, including George Edward Barton (1871-1923) an architect, William Rush Dunton (1865-1966) a psychiatrist, Eleanor Clarke Slagle (1870-1942) a social worker and occupational therapist, Thomas B. Kidner (1866-1932) a vocational educator, Susan Cox Johnson (1875-1932) an arts and crafts teacher, Susan E. Tracy (1864-1928) a nurse, Herbert James Hall (1870-1923) a physician and Isabel Gladwin Newton Barton (1891-1975) the secretary and author.


The Roots of Occupational Therapy - Founders in 1917

The founders of occupational therapy at Clifton Springs Sanitorium in 1917. Back row (from left) William Rush Dunton, Isabel Newton, Thomas Bessell Kidner. Front row (from left) Susan Cox Johnson, George Edward Barton, Eleanor Clarke Slagle. Photo courtesy of the archive of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

William Rush Dunton Jr., who is often referred to as the “father of occupational therapy,” advocated for the therapeutic value of occupations and formed the National Society for Promotion of Occupational Therapy in 1917, which later became the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). Eleanor Clark Slagle, known as the “mother of occupational therapy,” organized the first educational program for occupational therapists, marking a significant advancement in the field.

The profession was founded on the belief that engaging in meaningful activities could promote health and well-being, especially among those with mental illnesses or recovering from injuries. This holistic approach was innovative for its time and has continued to evolve into the comprehensive healthcare field it is today.

The impetus for the development of occupational therapy was multifaceted. It was partly a response to the inadequacies in the care of individuals with mental illness and the growing recognition of the importance of engagement in meaningful activities for health and well-being. Additionally, the aftermath of World War I created a surge in the need for rehabilitative services for returning soldiers who had sustained injuries or were dealing with shell shock (now known as PTSD). Occupational therapy offered a holistic approach to rehabilitation, emphasizing not just physical recovery but also psychological and social well-being through productive activities.


The Roots of Occupational Therapy - OT Workshop WWI

A view of an occupational therapy workshop during World War I. More than two dozen servicemen are participating in woodworking and basket-weaving classes in an occupational therapy workshop from World War I. The men sit or stand at workbenches as they engage in woodwork and handicraft activities. Source: The National Library of Medicine.

The founders of occupational therapy were pioneers in recognizing the significance of occupation to human health and the potential of a structured approach to using activities therapeutically. Their work laid the foundation for what has become a dynamic and ever-evolving profession, one that continues to adapt and respond to the changing needs of society and advances in healthcare.

Today, occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, from hospitals and clinics to schools and community centers, helping people of all ages and abilities to live life to its fullest despite any limitations they may face. The profession’s commitment to enabling engagement in meaningful activities remains at the heart of occupational therapy, honoring the legacy of its founders and their vision for a more humane and effective approach to healthcare.


The Roots of Occupational Therapy - Curative Workshop

In 1919, occupational therapy was performed in this curative workshop in Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee. The Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee had a small cottage on its grounds that was used for occupational therapy. Here clients are learning to walk. Photo courtesy of the archive of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

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