Gertrude Robertson on the Rise of Occupational Therapy & How It Has Evolved Over Time


The concept of occupational therapy first emerged in the 1700s during the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, where new ideas were formed regarding how to care for those with a mental illness. Before this, patients were confined to prisons to keep them away from the rest of society. Fortunately, philanthropist Philippe Pinel, and French physician William Tuke, rejected the hostile treatment of patients and adopted a new philosophy called ‘moral treatment.’ This new philosophy was built on the foundation that all patients deserved to be treated with compassion and understanding. In 1976, Tuke designed the ‘York Retreat,’ which would employ humane practices for treating the ill. In particular, he focused on religion and leisure activities as a remedy to curtail patients’ symptoms. This was the first asylum of its kind and featured long open corridors where individuals could roam freely.


In 1812, Benjamin Rush, the ‘Father of American Psychiatry,’ was the first doctor in the U.S. to implement methods that supported moral treatment. Rush was a proponent of leisure activities and encouraged patients to learn to sew, garden, listen to music, and exercise daily. The ‘golden years’ of moral treatment took place from 1840 to 1860, when practitioners began to recognize the psychological and emotional benefits of arts and crafts. Physicians found that these pastimes stimulated greater feelings of relaxation and productivity. By 1895, due to its widespread acceptance, Rush implemented an arts and crafts regimen for his patients to enjoy.


In the 1900s, we start to recognize occupational therapy as a reflection of the occupation we know today. By 1915, Eleanor Clark Sagle, the ‘Mother of Occupational Therapy,’ created the first educational program for OTs. This program was a significant achievement for all occupational therapists as it helped to legitimize the profession. Afterward, in 1917, the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT) was founded in Clifton Springs, NY. This society was formed out of the continued efforts to improve the moral treatment of patients, including scientific medicine and the use of arts and crafts. Today, this society is known as the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). AOTA is a non-profit organization focused on creating a global understanding of occupational therapy through public education, offering resources, setting standards, and promoting enhanced health care practices.


Today, there are more than 213,000 occupational therapists nationwide. They are dedicated to treating injured, ill, and disabled patients by helping them develop and recover the essential skills needed for daily living. Currently, there are nine specialties in the field of occupational therapy, including gerontology, mental health, physical rehabilitation, pediatrics, environmental modification, driving and community mobility, school systems, and feeding, eating, and swallowing. Occupational therapists usually choose to specialize in one or more areas over the course of their career.



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Gertrude Robertson

Gertrude Robertson

Occupational Therapy from Brooklyn, New York