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

While most people believe occupational therapy (OT) is a relatively new field of healthcare, its origins date back to the 18th century. Originally, occupational therapy was used as a humane method for treating the mentally ill. Today, OT is a growing profession that has become an essential service in the healthcare industry. Occupational therapists develop strategies that allow people to participate in a variety of tasks that are important to their daily life, including work, hobbies, education, mobility, and self-care. Now more than ever, there is an increasing need for occupational therapists to promote the health and wellness of communities around the world.

The following timeline Gertrude Robertson indicates how the role of occupational therapists has changed over the years, to become one of the most in-demand healthcare professions:


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.

The worst economic downturn in history, the Great Depression, took place in the United States from 1929 to 1939. This period was characterized by mass unemployment, debt, homelessness, and a shortage of food. Gertrude Robertson said the widespread poverty caused many citizens to develop serious mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. World War II was right around the corner, which sparked the ‘rehabilitation movement’ that lasted from 1940 to 1960. Given the weak economy and the United States entering the war in 1941, there was a clear need for occupational therapists. Military hospitals called upon OTs to support the rehabilitation of soldiers facing mental illness and physical injury. OTs began treating serious physical disabilities, including spinal cord injuries, amputations, traumatic brain injury, and cerebral palsy.

In 1964, St. Catherine University became the first in the United States to offer an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) program, a two-year course, compared to the four to six years of study required for OTs. Around the same time, occupational therapists started treating children in the field of pediatrics and developmental disabilities. By 1990, occupational therapy had shifted to focus on a person’s overall quality of life, with an emphasis on education, prevention, screening, and healthcare checkups.


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.

Employment of occupational therapists is expected to grow 29% between 2012 and 2022, due to the rising demand for OT practitioners. One of the reasons behind this growing need is the aging baby boomer population and their desire to stay active. Occupational therapists can help senior citizens maintain independence by improving accessibility in their homes and developing strategies to simplify self-care activities. OTs can also assist seniors with post-surgery recovery, and conditions associated with aging such as strokes and arthritis. The advancement of technology has also played a huge role in the development of OT. We now have speech recognition software, assistive devices, wheelchairs, and computer software programs, which can drastically affect how we treat patients and help them regain independence.

The field of occupational therapy has a rich and fascinating history. In 2017, AOTA celebrated its 100th anniversary, and one can only imagine the changes that will take place over the next 100 years. Undeniably, occupational therapists will continue to be at the forefront of modern healthcare as they play a vital role in bringing meaning to people’s everyday lives.

Occupational Therapy from Brooklyn, New York