Occupational Therapy in the early 20th century - sketch

Susan E. Tracy

Susan E. Tracy

1906 - Nurse Susan E. Tracy was lecturing about ‘invalid occupation’ and eventually wrote a book called ‘Studies in Invalid Occupations.’

1908 - The Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy opened. It grew out of the settlement house movement, and sought to combine social work education with actual social work. Faculty and students were involved with juvenile delinquency, truancy, vocational training, and housing. There were also courses to teach nurses how to offer ‘handicraft, exercise, and play’ to so-called feeble minded and insane patients.

In parallel, William Rush Dunton Jr. started teaching nurses ‘occupation treatment,’ in 1911, and published his “Occupation Therapy” book in 1915.

1915 was also the year Eleanor Clarke Slagle became the director of the Henry B. Favill School of Occupations which was affiliated with the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy.

At the same time, Dr. Herbert Hall was changing the game at his workshop in Marblehead, MA, by trying out skilled craftspeople instead of nurses or doctors to teach occupations.

An architect named George Barton got interested in Herbert Hall’s work and the work of other early innovators of occupational therapy and used their ideas in the formation of Consolation House at the Clifton Springs Sanatarium.

Consolation House was the site of the seminal occupational therapy conference in 1917, convened when George Barton invited William Rush Dunton, Susan Johnson of Columbia University, Thomas B Kidner, Commisioner of Canadian Military Hospitals, and Eleanor Clarke Slagle. Together they formed the Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy.

The meeting of the minds at Consolation House, 1917 - the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy

The meeting of the minds at Consolation House, 1917 - the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy

Eleanor Clarke Slagle and the Soceity were then instrumental in convincing officials in Washington that a mass experiment in work therapy should be conducted at army hospitals during and after World War I.

This ‘work cure’ took its place alongside other innovations like Freud’s ‘talking cure’ in a medical field that was expanding to address the traumas of World War I and other new kinds of early 20th century maladies that seemed to require new approaches.

Charles H. Christensen writes in his post about George Barton,

The United States at the dawn of the 20th Century was a country focused on steel, mining, railroads, timber, manufacturing of all kinds and vast stretches of unsettled land that would lead to great technological and population changes, as well as a sense of national optimism. Even with this great advancement, social problems still emerged as language and cultural differences clashed, and living and working conditions of workers were often harsh and health threatening. The stress of change and working conditions led to widespread stress-related illnesses, which were poorly understood at the time, and a person’s perceived worth was often defined by their ability to work. Large asylums were built to house more severely affected people who had acquired ”psychosomatic illnesses,” what we know as different types of disabilities and chronic conditions, or were unable to cope with the living challenges they faced

The stress of change and working conditions led to widespread stress-related illnesses, which were poorly understood at the time, and a person’s perceived worth was often defined by their ability to work.

Reminds me of this tweet:

I don’t get the sense that mainstream Occupational Therapy has overtly political/economic ideological positions, ie. for or against capitalism, but I want to understand more about how the field has historically understood these problems at the nexus of work and worth. My guess would be that, in contrast to the capitalist perspective that a person’s productivity as measured by market evaluation, the field probably prioritizes the MEANING that any given ‘occupation’ gives to the one performing it.