The Evolution of Occupational Therapy Through the Years

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Occupational therapy (OT) is an ever-evolving profession that has, over time, grown to become an essential and in-demand healthcare field. In its early stages, before it was even known as occupational therapy, it was a method to provide humane care for the mentally ill. But over the span of three centuries, it has evolved into a profession that helps provide rehabilitative services to individuals with mental, physical, or developmental impairments.

St. Catherine University helped play an essential role in the evolution of OT. In 1964, the university offered the first occupational therapy assistant (OTA) program in the country and has become one of the few universities to offer all levels of OT education, from associate’s degrees through master’s and doctoral degrees.

OT through the years

Now, as occupational therapy marks its 100th year, St. Catherine University remains an education leader, expanding its OTA program to include a 16-month Online Occupational Therapy Assistant Program in California, Virginia, and Texas.

And as we celebrate occupational therapy’s achievements over the past century, it is important to note the career really began long before 1917. In fact, it began in the 1700s before anyone even knew what to call it. Discover for yourself the ideas, movements, and concepts that helped to shape the demanding profession of occupational therapy to what it has become today.


The Evolution

Occupational Therapy
through the Years





During the "Age of Enlightenment," new ideas were formed to combat how mental illness was treated. At the time, patients were viewed as threats to society and locked away in prison.



The Moral Treatment Movement, introduced by philanthropist, William Tuke, and French physician, Phillippe Pinel, began the push to develop more humane methods of treatment for those who suffered from mental illness. Advocates believed all patients were entitled to compassion which would provide a better foundation for treatment and recovery.



The York Retreat, founded by William Tuke, was designed for the humane treatment of mentally ill people. This was the first asylum of its kind, featuring long, airy corridors that allowed patients to wander freely. Here, the mentally ill would always be cared for with kindness, dignity and decency.







Benjamin Rush, otherwise known as the “Father of American Psychiatry,” was the first physician in the United States to use moral treatment practices on patients. He recommended occupational therapy for the institutionalized and insane, encouraging them to sew, garden, listen to music or exercise during the day.



The Golden Years of Moral Treatment and Occupation in American hospitals, lasted until 1860. During this time, the benefits of arts and crafts were being recognized and became a highly used activity by occupational therapists to promote relaxation and feelings of productivity.



The Arts and Crafts Movement pushed the idea that doing things with your own two hands was a healthier practice than letting a machine do it. Proponents of this movement believed that machine work alienated people from nature and their own creativity. Occupational therapists adapted this approach in their treatment of patients.



William Rush Dunton Jr. was considered the “Father of Occupational Therapy.” He implemented an arts and crafts regimen for his patients and later started National Society for Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT).







Dr. Herbert Hall coined the term “work cure.” He was a pioneer in the systematic and organized study of occupation as therapy for patients with nervous and mental disorders. He started a pottery, weaving and carpentry workshop to treat hysteria, neurosis and neurasthenia and other psychological disorders.



Susan Tracy was a nurse who was involved in the work therapy movement, which valued Occupational Therapy techniques. She wrote the first American book about Occupational Therapy called “Studies in Invalid Occupations.”



George Edward Barton was the first person to coin the term “occupational therapy.” He was an architect who became an advocate of OT after a personal experience with treatment of illness. He later opened an arts and crafts workshop in Clifton Springs, NY called Consolation House.



Eleanor Clark Slagle, known as the “Mother of Occupational Therapy,” organized the first professional school for occupational therapists, The Henry B. Favill School of Occupations, in Chicago.



On March 5, The National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT), now known as the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), was founded at the Consolation House in New York.



Occupational therapy continued to grow and expand during World War II. Military hospitals were desperate for more Occupational Therapists.



World Federation of Occupational Therapy (WFOT) was inaugurated by ten occupational therapy associations from around the world. Its purpose was to promote and advocate for occupational therapy internationally.



The Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) occupation was created to alleviate the demand for OTs who were required to attend 4-6 years of schooling.



St. Catherine launched its first two-year degree program for COTAs (formally known as St. Mary’s Junior College).



Occupational therapy shifted to focus on a person’s quality of life through education prevention, screenings and health maintenance.







Occupational therapy remains an ever-changing profession in high demand due to the aging baby boomer population, returning military and treatment for people with various illnesses and disabilities.



Be Part of the Future of OT

As you can see, Occupational Therapy has come a long way and continues to mature and expand. That’s what makes now the best time to become a certified occupational therapy assistant through St. Kate’s Online OTA program. As the demand increases for OTAs, this program gives you the perfect opportunity to pave the path toward your future.

Contact an admissions counselor today to learn more about how you can begin your journey towards an exciting, in-demand career as an OTA.


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