Historical roots of occupational therapy: A beginning explanation for the inquiry.

In the previous installment I talked about the curious letter from Dr. Licht to Dr. Copeland, who was the Mayor of Clifton Springs, NY.  It was curious because Dr. Licht was so closely connected to Dr. Dunton, who was a Founder himself and attended the initial meeting at Consolation House.

Looking back at the 50th year celebration of AOTA, we can see that Isabel (Newton) Barton, the wife of George Barton, was alive when Dr. Licht made his initial inquiry in 1967.  She even wrote an article that appeared in AJOT in 1968 about her memories of Consolation House.  This exemplifies the (probable) difficulty of information sharing in a pre-Internet context.  It is difficult to understand any other reason why any 'disconnect' might exist and why Dr. Licht did not contact Mrs. Barton directly from the start.

Mrs. Barton's 1968 article is interesting - and primarily reflects a personal recollection of the particulars of Consolation House.  It is dripping full of context and context imbues meaning into form. Still, these words were written and 50 years later when someone attempts to learn more about the occupational therapy profession's founders there is only general description.  What happens to all of the context that Mrs. Barton shared when we read a sentence in a textbook that 'George Barton, an architect, was one of the founders of the occupational therapy profession????'

I believe that we should have a deeper covenant with our history.  I thoroughly enjoyed Kay Schwartz's (2009) Slagle lecture that breathed some life into the founders, but I am wondering if there is still more for us to consider, or if there is some way to make the history even more meaningful.

It is understandable how in a pre-Internet context we didn't have the resources or abilities to share and it is understandable how we can begin to 'lose' the context of our history - but now we have a new opportunity and perhaps obligation to share the things that we know.  I am hopeful that sharing this information and some reflections will serve others as we examine our history in context of 100 years of existence as a profession.

Words can be evocative, but perhaps presentation can also help to serve that purpose.  Some people state that there is a difference when a book is read as opposed to when the place described in the book is actually visited.  How can we make history meaningful so that it becomes interesting to people who may benefit from the fruits it holds in its branches?  What can we learn about our profession when we study the life of the man who was the first to give it the name "occupational therapy."

This is a primary question I pondered as I planned this series.  While eyebrow deep in study about George Barton I came across a Robert Frost poem titled 'After Apple Picking' :

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

What I hope my future installments will show is how we can consider George Barton's life as a parallel to the apple-picker.  I hope that it can be a fair and correct comparison.  There was a richness to his life that the statement about him being an architect simply does not reflect.  That richness can be considered in the apples that he picked, those that he left upon the tree, those that fell to the earth, and those that made it into barrels - full or not.

As I learned more and more about George Barton I felt like I was walking through the scene that Robert Frost described, looking around me at all the work related to his efforts.

That richness is not only important from a historical contemplation of being 'accurate' or 'fully descriptive' but I believe that it reflects the meaning and depth of the occupational therapy profession itself.  In the case of George Barton, the philosophy that informed a man also informed an entire profession - and this is something we should all consider when we stop to wonder 'why' occupational therapists do the things that they do.


Barton, I.G. (1968). Consolation House, Fifty Years Ago.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 22(4), 340-345.

Frost, R. (1915). After Apple Picking.  Retrieved July 23, 2013 from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173523

Schwartz, K. B. (2009). Reclaiming our heritage: Connecting the Founding Vision to the Centennial Vision [Eleanor Clarke Slagle lecture]. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63, 681–690.


Quite accidentally I stumbled across this article entitled From Chaos to Archives: The records of the American Occupational Therapy Association. This article describes the unfortunate inconsistency in record keeping that AOTA has had over the years. Read all of the details here: http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-1998/from-chaos-to-archives-the-records-of-the-american-occupational-therapy-association

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