Early Influencers of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy

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Six people met in March 1917 to establish the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy. These six are credited with being the founders of occupational therapy.

But, the momentum and enthusiasm surrounding the use of occupations as curative treatment were not generated solely by six people. The path between a meeting of 6 like-minded men and women to a flourishing profession 100 years later has many dedicated individuals along the way.

Of particular esteem, Susan Elizabeth Tracy, Herbert J. Hall, M.D., and Adolf Meyer had a profound influence throughout the early years of occupational therapy. All three had regular interaction with the six founders and today, their contributions are easily traced, as they all wrote significant works that helped propel occupational therapy forward.

Familiarizing yourself with their works, as well as these three individuals, is vital to understanding the growth of occupational therapy.

Susan Elizabeth Tracy

Susan Tracy was invited to be a part of the founding group, but she was teaching a course in occupation and could not attend. Susan is, therefore, listed as an incorporator rather than a founder.

Tracy trained as a nurse and was using activities with patients to speed the healing process (and training other nurses to do the same) as early as 1905.

Several of the founders focused their efforts on exploring the use of occupational therapy for those with mental health conditions. Tracy saw an even broader application. In 1910, she published the book Studies in Invalid Occupation. The chapter titles of her book suggest, in Tracy’s own words, who could benefit from the use of occupations: typical children, restricted positions, in quarantine, one-handed lessons, the inpatient boy, in the hospital, grandmother, the businessman, with waning powers, in waiting time, without sight, the clouded mind.

Herbert J. Hall, M.D.

Herbert Hall graduated in 1885 with a medical degree from Harvard. Hall was interested in integrating the Arts and Crafts Movement into medicine. His clinical work focused on prescribing and administering “work therapy” as a treatment for patients with nervous disorder. He opened a workshop in Massachusetts where he hired craftsmen to teach hand-weaving, pottery, metalwork and woodworking. In 1905 and 1909 Hall received $1000 grants from Harvard to assist in the study of the treatment of neurasthenia through occupation.

For reasons I would love to know, his nomination for inclusion in the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy was denied by William Rush Dunton.

Hall went on to serve as the president of the American Occupational Therapy Association from 1920-1922.

Hall authored three books that are still available to readers: The Untroubled Mind, The Work of Our Hands: A Study of Occupations for Invalids, and Handicrafts for the Handicapped.

Adolf Meyer

Meyer was a prominent psychiatrist in the first half of the 20th century. He served as the psychiatrist and chief at John Hopkins hospital for over 30 years and was president of the American Psychiatric Association from 1927-1928.

Meyer’s exposure and interest in patient occupation began as early 1892 and discussed it in one of the first papers he presented in the U.S.

At John Hopkins, he hired Eleanor Clarke Slagle as The Director of Occupational Therapy. Slagle, now considered to be the mother of occupational therapy, cites Meyer as a major influence on her work.

Meyer wrote the Philosophy of Occupational Therapy and presented it at the fifth annual meeting of the National Society for the Promotion of the Occupational Therapy. The excerpt below highlights Meyer’s understanding of psychobiology—a concept that he championed—in which the psychiatrist took into account the biological, social, and psychological factors of the person when prescribing treatment. This holistic understanding of his patients was closely intertwined with his interest in occupational therapy.

Our body is not merely so many pounds of flesh and bone figuring as a machine, with an abstract mind or soul added to it. It is throughout a live organism pulsating with its rhythm of rest and activity, beating time (as we might say) in ever so many ways, most readily intelligible and in the full bloom of its nature when it feels itself as one of those great self-guiding energy-transformers which constitute the real world of living beings. 

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