Sifting through a century of history

by Stephanie Stemmler  •  November 28, 2018

Centennial book coverFrom the 1922 cover photo of a new book celebrating the first 100 years of the occupational therapy program at Washington University, you can see how much has changed in the profession.

From students learning therapeutic arts and crafts while seated around a wooden table, the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University has grown to become one of the most prestigious programs in the world, melding education and practice with evidence-based rehabilitation science and research.

This year, the Program celebrates its 100th anniversary. To mark the milestone, a book was commissioned titled, “The Rise of a Program and a Profession: Occupational Therapy at Washington University, the First 100 Years.”

In the foreward, M. Carolyn Baum, PhD, OTR, FAOTA, the Elias Michael Director of the Program in Occupational Therapy, writes, “Our early leaders challenged mainstream medicine by advocating for social and medical reforms.”

Indeed, as author Cynthia Georges found out, the Washington University program was at the forefront of many advances in occupational therapy, but its own history was filled with challenges. She writes, “The program served two wars, battled for a home in the School of Medicine, and narrowly escaped closure in unstable times. It persevered by building the science to align with a world-class research university.”

Georges faced challenges of her own in order to create what is now a remarkable testimony to the program. “Some details in historical records and accounts contradicted one another,” she explains. “This required lots of effort to check and corroborate information through a wide variety of sources.”

A writer and editor based in St. Louis, Georges has written extensively for Washington University for 35 years. Previously she worked on campus in several areas, including the Office of Public Affairs, the School of Business, and the Office of Alumni and Development. A former English teacher, she also has completed many writing projects as an independent writer for the University. “Much of my career has centered on telling stories about the extraordinary individuals who make up the Washington University community,” she says.

Georges spent hundreds of hours tracking down the history of the program and conducting interviews. She hunted in the archives of the Missouri Historical Society & Research Center, the American Occupational Therapy Foundation’s Wilma L. West Library, the Junior League of St. Louis, the John M. Olin Library at Washington University and the Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine, where she collaborated with Philip Skroska, who has served since 2008 as an archivist with the visual collections.

“For OT, we had a lot of material to go through, which in itself, posed challenges to find documented materials about policy changes and such,” says Skroska. “For photos, the challenge was compounded because the brief captions that originally come with them don’t always convey the value of an image. If a picture is worth a thousand words, doesn’t that mean it could take a thousand words to convey the nuances in an image? Finding a photo, then, wasn’t as hard as finding the right photo.”

The program, initially called the St. Louis Training School for Reconstruction Aides, first opened its doors in December 1918 to aid soldiers injured during World War I. Coursework leading to a certification of completion included classes in what were called therapeutic crafts, such as weaving, basketry, book-binding, pottery, simple woodworking, bead work, metal work and design. The program also offered rehabilitation-focused lectures and clinical practice opportunities in hospital settings.

A 1919 brochure describing the program stated, “We place our trained teachers in hospitals where they teach convalescent patients various crafts, academic subjects, physical exercises and other work, prescribed by a physician, for hastening their physical and mental improvement.”

The first class comprised 12 women. Tuition, which included tools needed for crafts, totaled $60.

“From the outset, the St. Louis media covered news of the school with keen interest and regularity,” notes Georges. “Leading citizens in business, medicine, education and civic affairs praised the school and backed its development.”

That was not always the case, with Baum noting that the program “flourished during many years and teetered on the edge of collapse in others.” The economic downturn during the Depression years impacted faculty salaries, research funding and student enrollment. But the program had strong advocates that included some prominent physicians. In 1935, it was the first occupational therapy school to receive accreditation from the American Medical Association.

More challenges surfaced in later years, as funding and administrative support waxed and waned. The historical book highlights many of these issues that once jeopardized the viability of the program. But as the affiliation with Washington University matured and the program aligned its educational mission to include scientific and clinical research, the program became noted worldwide for its groundbreaking, evidence-based changes in practice.

Today, the Program in Occupational Therapy offers master’s and doctoral degrees in occupational therapy, as well a highly competitive doctorate in rehabilitation and participation science. U.S. News & World Report has consistently ranked the Program as the No. 1 occupational therapy program in the nation for several years.

Skroska, who sometimes conducts tours of the medical center for returning alumni, notes, “Usually there is someplace or someone at the school who the alumni could tell had a ‘history’, but in their relatively short time as students, they only see a snapshot of the school’s life. Getting more of the picture, so to speak, of what happened before and after their time here can help reframe their memories. The OT program has a long history of challenges and many successes. Every student is part of that history, and I don’t think I’m being disrespectful when I say they will find that the Program is much greater than the simple sum of their parts in it by reading this history.”

When you make a minimum gift of $100 to the Occupational Therapy Annual Fund, you will receive a copy of this keepsake history book. Visit to make a gift.


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