The Founders of Occupational Therapy

Work therapy
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On March 15-17, 1917, at a boarding house in Clifton Springs, New York, six people met to found the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy. The use of occupations had been growing throughout the beginning of the century, but this meeting is considered to be the founding of a new profession.

Today, occupational therapy spans the globe. In the U.S. alone, it employs an estimated 140,000 persons and is one of America’s fastest-growing jobs.

The founders included a psychiatrist, secretary, teacher, social worker, and two architects. Each believed that the care provided in hospitals was inadequate. They believed that the use of activities to occupy the time of patients had the potential to improve the healing process.

Note that the founding year coincides with the U.S. entering World War I, which would present new needs and opportunities for this budding profession. Also, note that three of the six founders were women­—a remarkable ratio considering it would be three more years before the U.S. would recognize a woman’s right to vote.

George Edward Barton: The Architect and Tuberculosis Patient

George Barton, along with William Rush Dunton Jr., was a founder of the founders. He and Dunton extended invitations to the other four members. Barton was an architect, who during his adult life suffered from tuberculosis as well as a left-sided paralysis. Subsequently, he spent time in a sanatorium and was deplored by the conditions.

While at the sanatorium, he developed an interest in the use of occupation to improve the quality of care and discharge preparedness. He vowed to spend the rest of his life “devoted to the subject of the reclamation of the sick and crippled.” He founded the Consolation House, an early prototype of a rehabilitation center, where he practiced occupational therapy.

Dr. William Rush Dunton, Jr.'s: The Psychiatrist

Dunton was a physician who served as the first President of the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy. He served on the faculty at John Hopkins School of Medicine as well as the assistant physician at Sheppard Asylum.

Dunton used occupations with his own clients and saw potential in the practice. Over the course of his career, he wrote prolifically about the profession, penning more than 120 books and articles related to occupational therapy. Major works included The Principles of Occupational Therapy (1918), ​Reconstruction Therapy (1919), and Prescribing Occupational Therapy (1928).​​

Susan Cox Johnson: The Teacher 

Susan Johnson trained as a teacher and began her career by teaching high school arts and crafts in Berkley, California. She then traveled to the Philippines for a brief stint of teaching crafts. She returned to the U.S. in 1912 and secured a job as the Director of the Occupations Committee for the Department of Public Charities of New York State.

Susan went on to teach occupational therapy in the nursing department at Columbia and organize and direct an occupational therapy department at Montefiore Home and Hospital. She also wrote multiple articles about occupational therapy for Modern Hospital.

Thomas Bessell Kidner: The Other Architect

Thomas Kidner served as President of the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy from 1923-1928. He resided in Canada and was The Vocational Secretary of Canadian Military Hospitals. Kidner is credited with advancing structure and function of the society, by creating a national registry and instituting standards for the education of occupational therapists.

Isabel Barton said this of Kidner, “He was a fascinating personality, so very British, even to the tailoring of his morning coat, striped trousers, winged collar, and tie. He was full of wit and he and Mr. Barton vied with each other as raconteurs.”

Isabel G. Newton: The Secretary

In 1916, Isabel was working as the bookkeeper in a preserving and canning plant, when she received a phone call from George Barton to gauge her interest in becoming secretary of the Consolation House. They went on to marry. Isabel worked alongside him teaching occupations to the residents of the Consolation House, until Barton’s death in 1923. In 1968, she wrote an article for The American Journal of Occupational Therapy—"Consolation House, 50 years ago"—which documents her memories of each of the founders.

Eleanor Clarke Slagle: The Social Worker

Eleanor Clarke Slagle was taking courses in social welfare (including lectures from Jane Adams) when in 1911, she completed the course Curative Occupations and Recreation at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Within a few years, she became director of the occupational therapy department at John Hopkins, in Boston, under Adolf Meyer, another early influencer of the occupational therapy movement.

She returned to Chicago in 1915 and established the Henry B. Favill School of Occupations and directed the school from 1915 to 1920. From there, she moved to New York to serve as the director of occupational therapy for the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.

Eleanor was elected vice president of The Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy in 1917 and then went on to serve in each available office between 1917 and 1937.

Slagle is considered the mother of occupational therapy. The American Occupational Therapy Association annually hosts the Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture in her honor. Her achievements did not go unnoticed during her own career: Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at her retirement banquet.

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