Tracing the Roots of Occupational Therapy

Tracing the Roots of Occupational Therapy

“Four Belgian WW1 veterans with prosthetic arms working in a machine shop in 1917. The occupational therapy took place at the Institute de Port Villez, Belgium”

Did you know that the field of occupational therapy (OT) did not exist until the early 1900’s? Even though occupational therapy is relatively a new profession compared to other medical fields, it has just as a rich of a history.

Prior to the early 1900’s, individuals suffering from mental illness were considered a threat and placed in prisons so they wouldn’t harm anyone. With time, as human rights causes became important, better systems were put into place for treating those suffering from mental illnesses. Asylums, where these individuals lived, started to offer safe spaces so they could engage in meaningful occupations. Earlier occupations included purposeful daily activities. This included music, exercise and literature. The intent was to improve emotional well-being which would help the ability to perform daily living activities.

William Rush Dunton Jr. is widely known as the “father of occupational therapy” as he was a strong advocate for occupational engagement. He encouraged patients to engage in leisure activities of their interest to help their growth. He also played a key role in forming the National Society for Promotion of Occupation Therapy which is now known as American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).


From the beginning, occupational therapy never fully fit into the medical model. Instead, it was considered to be a unique but holistic practice. The practice included aspects of physical therapy, social work, psychiatry, nursing care, orthopedics and more. However, occupational therapy did not have the evidence-based background and the treatments were not understood. Susan Tracy, a nurse, took the task and wrote “Studies in Invalid Occupations” to write about the benefits of occupational therapy when offered with mental health treatment. Over time the benefits of occupational therapy became widely known and it began to stand out as a unique field.

Eleanor Clarke Slagle helped OT become a more established practice by organizing the first ever educational program for occupational therapists. She is better known as the ‘Mother of Occupational Therapy’. She also served as the President of AOTA from 1919-1920.

World War I helped further establish occupational therapy as a recognized, legitimate practice. Those who had fought in the war faced mental health and physical challenges. Reconstruction aides were charged with providing OT services to these individuals. As the OT field and its benefits became widely well-known during the World War I, the addition of OT assistants helped the field grow even further.

Today, occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants work in various settings across the world. The clinicians of Cornerstone Rehab work in long-term care facilities providing care to older adults. Learn how you can join the team.