On Sunday, February 24th, at 7 pm EST, 4 pm PST, the Twitter account for the Society for the Study of Occupation: USA found at the twitter handle @OccSci_USA will be hosting a topic chat that can be found following #OccSciChat. This Chat will be on the topic of occupational therapy (OT) history and its relevancy to OT science and OT practice. The only requirement to join is that you come ready to share your perspective!

Pre-Chat Reading

Occupational Therapy History: It’s Relevant!

William Rush Dunton Jr, one of the six founders of OT in America once quoted Dr. Thomas W. Salmon who said “The old, unproductive controversy over what is ‘mental’ and what is ‘physical’ in normal or abnormal functions is ending” (Dunton, 1945). Yet a century later, the controversy remains. Beginning with Descartes who separated the idea of the mind from the body; the idea of OT originally set out to combine the relationship of mind and body with the concept of function (Serret, 1983). While science has primarily been the study of the material world, OT has emphasized a holistic approach to the study of the human.  

The idea of what occupation is, may have had closer associations with the word diversion at its beginning (Dunton, 1919). As a half a century passed, the word “occupation” became increasingly replaced with the word “activity” (Bauerschmidt & Nelson, 2011). This marked the biomechanical era, labeled by Kielhofner (1983) as the “paradigm of inner mechanism” and faulted for its reductionism. Reductionism is essentially the separation, organization, and study of the fundamental parts of the whole. Reductionism remains an essential and valuable tool of science in the study of any material phenomenon. Kielhofner (1983) explained “Since the field is a dynamic and changing medium, the history provides the best possible definition of occupational therapy – not only what it is, but what it has been in the past and where it seems to be headed.” Price (2017) argued that OT professional programs have “decoupled occupation from therapy.”  

Whether good or bad, humans change and their occupations change with them. As OT has evolved and adapted, could it be that the relationship between occupational science and OT practice has lost its connection to the original idea? Could it be that history on the surface appears less interesting or is otherwise undervalued? In the 1920’s there were debates on toy making, whether going to baseball games was occupational enough, and defining what OT is. OT history remains relevant to the study of OT as a science and a practice, yet it can also be interesting!

Discussion Questions

Q1: Do you feel occupational therapy history is an interesting subject? and what could make it more interesting and relevant?

Q2: Do you feel you gained an adequate knowledge of OT history during your study?

Q3: Are there any elements of occupational therapy history that you feel impact your day-to-day practice?

Q4: How does the history of occupational therapy impact our professional perspective of the science of occupational therapy?

Q5: How do you think the fundamental idea of occupational therapy has changed over time and how might it continue to change in the future?


Bauerschmidt, B., & Nelson, D. L. (2011). The terms occupation and activity over the history of official occupational therapy publications. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65, 338–345. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2011.000869

Dunton, W. R. (1919). Reconstruction therapy. WB Saunders Company.

Dunton W. R. (1945). Prescribing Occupational Therapy. (2nd ed.) C. C. Thomas

Kielhofner, G. (Ed.). (1983). Health through occupation: Theory and practice in occupational therapy. FA Davis Company.

Price, P., Hooper, B., Krishnagiri, S., Taff, S. D., & Bilics, A. (2017). A way of seeing: How occupation is portrayed to students when taught as a concept beyond its use in therapy. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 71, 7104230010. Serrett, K. D. (1985). Philosophical and historical roots of occupational therapy. New York: Haworth Press.

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