10 Amazing Moments in OT History

Here are 10 highlights from the history of occupational therapy.

In 1917, a small group met on March 15-18th in Clifton Springs, New York, and established The National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy. In the United States, we celebrate this as the official start of our profession.

In 2017, we are now celebrating the centennial of occupational therapy. This gives us good reason to look back over the past century and celebrate some of the best moments from OT History.

My 10 Favorite Moments in OT History

1.) The founders included three men and three women, an equal gender division.  

In 1917, three men and three women voted into existence a national OT association. This was three years before women were allowed to vote in federal elections!

Our profession still has much work to do in ensuring that our workforce reflects the clientele that we serve, but I am thankful for this inspiration from our origin.

Founders included: Eleanor Clarke Slagle, George Edward Barton, Dr. William Rush Dunton, Jr., Susan Cox Johnson, Thomas Bessell Kidner, and Isabel G. Newton.

2.)  The name “occupational therapy” is chosen.

I’ve come to believe that occupational therapy’s name is pure genius.

When the name was settled on, it held together several different movements. The inclusion of “occupation” in our name encompassed the following:

  • a rejection of rest-cure for tuberculosis,

  • a rejection of having patients passively languish in institutions,

  • and an affirmation that the goal of care should be for patients to re-enter into society.

The value placed on occupations also aligned the new profession with the Arts and Crafts movement, which prized the value of traditional craftsmanship as factory production was on the rise.

The inclusion of “therapy” situated our work squarely in the medical field. This was important because women's work in healthcare was just starting to be regarded as professional work (versus private acts of charity.)

To me, our name is a source of inspiration as our profession continues to navigate the many forces that influence our care.

The mythological bird, the phoenix, was envisioned as a symbol of occupational therapy by one of the founders.

3.)  The phoenix is envisioned as the symbol of our profession.

The phoenix is a mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes (think: Harry Potter). George Edward Barton foresaw this as the symbol of our work and made it the symbol of Consolation House, where he practiced occupational therapy.  Under the image of the bird was the tagline “Beauty from Ashes.”

Today the phoenix can be seen on the emblem of OT organizations around the world, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Australia.

4.)  OT's unique role in pediatrics is established early.

Pediatric OT has its own unique history, that seems to be underexplored and under-celebrated. I hope to learn more about this history, but for now, I want to give the spotlight to the Curative Workshop that was established in 1919 and is one of the earliest examples of occupational therapy methods being used to serve children with disabilities.  

5.)  Occupational therapy responds to needs during WWI.

The young profession was quickly drawn into assisting with the war effort. The army began its first use of OT in 1918 at Walter Reed Hospital. Bedridden patients knitted and patients who were ambulatory participated in chair caning, woodworking, printing, and rug making. (Ron Swanson would have been proud.)

Both world wars helped establish occupational therapy’s role in orthopedic care.

6.)  Eleanor Roosevelt speaks at Eleanor Clarke Slagle’s retirement reception.

Eleanor Clarke Slagle is considered the “mother of occupational therapy.”  She served in elected offices of the Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy from 1917-1937.

Slagle was among a new generation of professional women. For me, nothing situates her place in history better than picturing Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at her retirement celebration in 1937.

I do not know the content of Roosevelt’s remarks other than what was summarized in an AOTF newsletter.

“During her remarks, Mrs. Roosevelt lauded the untiring work of Eleanor Clarke Slagle, but could not resist the temptation to speak on the professional activities of women and the importance of advancing the cause of women in society.”

(If anyone has access to her full remarks, please let me know!)

7.)  A killer graduation speech is composed.   

An excerpt by Thomas Kidner, one of the founders of occupational therapy.

I love reading the soaring rhetoric from the founders of occupational therapy. Their passion for establishing our profession is so evident in their writing. This expert from a graduation speech delivered in 1929 by Thomas Kidner is my favorite example.

In your chosen field, a part of the noblest work of man—the care and relief of weak and suffering humanity—may you realize in increasing measure the value of certain spiritual things which are the making of life, but which we call by many common names. Kindness, humanity, decency, honor, good faith—to give these up under any circumstances would be a greater loss than any defeat or even death itself.

8.)  The World Federations of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) is established.  

WFOT was established in 1952 by OT associations from 10 countries.

Today, WFOT has 92 Member Organizations and represents approximately 480,000 occupational therapists around the world.

From the founding of an OT national association to Sigourney Weaver playing an OT in a movie, here are 10 highlights from the history of occupational therapy!

9.)  Sigourney Weaver plays an OT!  

Okay. This might just be a personal favorite since I love Sigourney. 

Unfortunately, Sigourney's character in the 1988 movie “Gorillas In The Mist” isn't actively working as an OT, but the historical figure was trained as an occupational therapist so I'm going to count it. 

Ms. Weaver plays Dian Fossey, who trained and worked as an occupational therapist before moving to Rwanda to study mountain gorillas. Be warned: this is not the feel good movie I was expecting when I checked it out at my local video store a decade ago. There is scandal involved as well as a tragic murder mystery.

10.) The OT services YOU are providing! 

While it may not have made the history books yet, the care that you provide individual clients is truly what makes our profession great.  May we continue to learn from our past and look ahead with our focus on one thing: providing the best care possible.

Looking to share information about occupational therapy with colleagues and clients? Check out the OT Month Toolkit.

Additional OT History Resources

Friedland J. Restoring the spirit: the beginnings of occupational therapy in Canada, 1890-1930. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press; 2011.

Peloquin SM. Occupational Therapy Service: Individual and Collective Understandings of the Founders, Part 1. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 1991;45(4):352-360. doi:10.5014/ajot.45.4.352.

Peloquin SM. Occupational Therapy Service: Individual and Collective Understandings of the Founders, Part 2. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 1991;45(8):733-744. doi:10.5014/ajot.45.8.733.

Quiroga VAM. Occupational Therapy: the first 30 years: 1900 to 1930. Bethesda, MD: The American Occupational Therapy Association; 1995.

These moments and resources only scratch the history of our profession. If you are interested in reading more, I strongly recommend othistory.com with posts written by Chris Alterio.