The History of Occupational Therapy
An understanding of the history of occupational therapy (OT) is essential for those seeking a career in the field. Current OT processes have been developing since around 100 BC, when Asclepiades, a Greek Physician, used massage and exercise to treat patients with mental illness. But the practice, as we know it today, didn’t begin to emerge until the 18th century in Europe. Phillipe Pinel and Johan Christian Reil are credited as the first to introduce modern OT. Through work and leisure activities they rehabilitated institutionalized patients. The practice was not common in the United States until the turn of the 20th century, coinciding with the recognition that mental healthcare system was in dire need of reform.
The emergence of OT as a profession
Between 1910 and 1920 the concept of dedicating oneself to OT emerged. Early practices combined the importance of working and having a strong work ethic. It was highly criticized as most medical professionals considered wood carving and crafting trivial. It didn’t take long for the world to understand the importance of OT as proponents of the profession developed their craft. Within a span of 20 years the public was convinced that health was more than just a physiological concept, and that social and economic issues also came into play.
The early history of OT in the United States is difficult to trace, as practitioners didn’t always document their progress and findings – they weren’t fully aware of the future importance of their research. Most of what is known today has been gleaned from newspaper articles, personal testimonials, and World War 1 records provided by government agencies. It was during this war that the practice clarified its purpose and image, developing workshops and training occupational therapy schools nationwide. “Reconstruction Aides” were recruited by the Surgeon General to provide both occupational and physical therapies.
The importance of World War 1 to Occupational Therapy in America
Approximately 150,000 wounded men were treated by reconstruction aides when they returned home from overseas. It is not known how many were treated abroad. Most early occupational therapists were women, trying to contribute in whatever way they could. During the war many accolades were given to these women, but afterwards the profession struggled to stay afloat. The public perception of therapy shifted from “lending a helping hand” to financial and professional gratification. The first standardized curriculum was developed and the American Occupational Therapy Association formed.
With the AOTA in place, the profession became recognized as a legitimate medical practice. Adolf Meyer, a Swiss psychiatrist who emigrated to the United States, presented a paper in 1922 detailing the psychological need for occupation. Further advancements to the field came from William Rush Dunton, who is credited as creating some of the basic tenants of the practice.
The practice continued to develop through WWII and our understanding of the importance of Occupation has continued to grow. Recent theories contributing to the advancement of the field include the person-environment-occupation model, proposed in 1996. Currently developments are taking place in the field in relation to occupational deprivation, focusing on therapy needed by refugees and the homeless.
For a simple definition of modern-day OT, check out: What is Occupational Therapy?