Correcting the record: The relationship between Barton and Dunton

The 1992 article "Point of Departure: A Play About Founding the Profession" written by Robert Bing, has some notable inaccuracies that require correction.  The article has incorrect dates, incorrect attributions, and factual errors.  The article was written in a somewhat whimsical fashion in the form of a play.  However, it is important for such a telling to correctly reflect the historical record.  It is possible that poetic license, used in context of history, does a disservice to our proper understanding of events as they actually occurred.

Contrary to what commonly occurs, I believe that it is important for us to make sure that legends do not become facts.

In an article relating to historical documentary methods, Dunne, Pettigrew, and Robinson (2016) state that researchers must be cautious about facts and that simple linear accounting may be helpful to establish basic narratives.  Bing's article does not meet this criteria in that some reported events in his 'play' do not always match the archived records of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

One initial characterization that requires clarity is Bing's statement that Dunton had the following belief about Barton: "Because he had some physical problems himself, he was mainly interested in the hospital as a 're-education institution.'"  There is no doubt that Barton had ailments, and it is certainly likely that this fact contributed to his interest in the occupational therapy topic, but it is probably incorrect to explain his interest in such a constricted way.  In fact, one of Barton's initial letters to Dunton dated November 10, 1914 states specifically, "I am not a doctor and have no particular interest in medicine, but I may perhaps lay some slight claim to being a socialist however insignificant, and my great aim is to use the hospital as a re-educational institution."  As such it is clear that Bing's characterization of Barton's motive is incomplete and not fully accurate in accordance with the actual correspondence.  As documented previously in this blog, Barton was influenced by Ruskin and Morris, both of whom were 'socialists' and interested in applying their design ideas for the betterment of society.  Barton (1917) later published an entire book focused around social criticism of existing systems and his desire to influence broad social policy.  He was not simply motivated by his own ailments.

Another point of curiosity is Bing's characterization of Barton's antipathy toward Dr. Herbert Hall.  It is true that deep-seated antipathy was present.  However, there are some rather complex issues regarding the relationship between Dunton, Barton, and Hall that I am still exploring.  There were notable philosophical differences about occupation that might not be fairly reduced the way they were in Bing's article.  In fact those relationships and the differences of opinion about the primary function of 'occupation work' might make for someone's entire doctoral thesis someday.  I hope to write more about that at some point in time.

Bing's article continues and he makes an unusual and inaccurate assertion.  He states (in Dunton's voice) "In that same letter, dated December 9, 1916, George (by this time we were on a first name basis, even though we had yet to meet), took me to task about my use of the term occupation worker."  There are several concerns.  First, there is no evidence in the correspondence that Dunton and Barton regularly used each other's first names.  In fact, almost all of the correspondence uses "Mr. Barton" and "Dr. Dunton" with several instances where Barton simply addresses his colleague as "Dunton."

Second, it is difficult to know if Dunton's correspondence used "George" because there is so little of it and what is available is very difficult to read.  The archives at the Wilma West Library that have this correspondence are almost all unidirectional with many more letters from Barton than were written by Dunton.  Many of the letters written by Dunton are only available as a carbon copy and presumably are those that were kept in the files of Dr. Dunton.  The reason for this is that Dunton was much more fastidious in preserving records, and he kept the original letters written by Barton and copies of his own letters, although most of them are very challenging to read because of fading, age, being carbon-copied, etc.  In fact Dunton was sensitive that he only had unidirectional records of the founding because he wrote to Isabel Newton after George Barton's death asking her if she had records of his original correspondence.  On March 18, 1926 Newton wrote, "Forgive my delay in answering your request for your letters to my husband, relating to the formation of the National Association, but I have had to delay until I could go over the files in the attic.  I fail to find any of the correspondence during the years you mention and I am sure they must have been destroyed a year or so ago when I cleared out some of the files.  I am sorry if this means serious inconvenience to you."

Third. the letter that Bing states that was written on December 9, 1916 was actually written on December 20, 1916.  Barton's statement in that letter was, "One thing I cannot and will not stand for is the use of "occupation workers."  It means nothing, --does not even suggest the hospital to the casual reader, and it is bad English.  We cannot, I think, lose a single opportunity to rub in the word "therapeutics."  I shall insist always that this be the matter of prime importance, both from my interest in development of a new line of medicine, and from my horrid vision as a sociologist of what may occur if therapeutics is forgotten."

Fourth, there was not a separate letter ten days later suggesting "National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy."  That suggestion was made in the same letter actually dated December 20, 1916.  Bing asserts that this was a change from Barton's suggestion 13 months earlier of "Occupation for Re-Education."  I could not find any such reference.  The only previous suggestion was made in a letter dated November 11, 1915, where Barton adds a post script to Dunton that reads, "What do you think of 'The Society For the Promotion of Occupational Re-education' as a title."

Another confusing inaccuracy is Bing's characterization of Slagle's alleged fear of confrontation with Barton.  Bing writes (in Dunton's voice), "Meanwhile, I had been keeping Eleanor Slagle informed about all that was going on.  I did not let Barton know this; after all, you don't have to tell everything you know.  Mrs. Slagle wrote me that she was bringing a pair of boxing gloves to the meeting, since she was certain she and George would get into some kind of combat."  This accounting is factually inaccurate. On March 10, 1917 Barton wrote the following to Dunton: "I dislike at this early day to feel that I am a tale-bearer or a gossip, but I feel it will be my duty to warn you that Mrs. Slagle announces her intention of bringing boxing gloves in anticipation of some bout with you.  I look forward to the event with interest."

Bing characterized Barton's assumption of the Presidency of NSPOT in an unusual way.  He writes (in Dunton's voice), "Barton was elected President, a position he nominated himself for some weeks prior to the meeting."  This is only partially accurate.  In a letter dated November 11, 1915 Barton wrote to Dunton discussing a 'call' to find other occupation workers.  He wrote, "As to the position which I should assume in the society, that is a matter of comparatively slight importance.  I am willing to do whatever seems advisable.  Your assurance of assistance is in itself a great help and I thank you most heartily, both for myself and in the name of the many whom I trust may be benefited by our collaboration."  In continuing correspondence Barton acknowledges the role that Dunton played when he stated in a letter dated January 24, 1917, "Now that you have succeeded in getting me started, I am anxious to force things along."  Dunton was a facilitator and in fact he did not want to be the leader.  Barton wrote in a subsequent letter dated February 13, 1917 "Now in order that we may be in accord, I wish to give you my idea of how our work can best be divided.  Had it not been for the suggestions that I should take the lead in this organization, I have, I think and hope, sufficient natural modesty to make me hesitate to assume that leadership.  However, as I consider the work which I know the other members of the Big 5 are doing I cannot but believe, not that I could do it better, but that I am so situated as to be able to do it with far less trouble than any of the rest... I should be glad, therefore, if the Committee so desires, to assume the Presidency."

Furthermore, when Barton announced his resignation from the Presidency he asked Dunton to take over.  In a letter dated July 27, 1917 Barton wrote to Dunton and stated, "I have accomplished what you asked me to do, --namely, to get the people together and get the thing started, but little has yet been done; and I feel that it will be greatly to the benefit of the society, and to the ease with which the president's duties may be performed, if your hand takes the helm at what, to all intents and purposes, is the beginning of the society... I regret very much relinquishing this office, but I am confident that it will be in more worthy hands; and, I pledge you my continued earnest support and hearty cooperation."

In a letter also dated July 27, 1917 Dunton writes to Slagle and states, "He [Barton] had suggested that I be made President. I do not want the  job but at the same time I think it is very essential that our society be continued."  In a return letter dated August 3, 1917 Slagle encourages Dunton to take the lead and stated, "I am particularly pleased at the prospect of your being selected to the Presidency of the Society.  It is of the greatest importance that a person of vision and broad understanding of and with the problems be made President.  What do you think has happened to pique Mr. Barton?"


In sum, Bing's descriptions of Barton's correspondence include dating errors, negatively slanted attributions, incorrect attributions, and plain factual inaccuracies.  These errors go beyond mere poetic license in constructing a whimsical 'play' about the founding of the profession.  It is possible that these characterizations influenced subsequent historical accounting.  There is ample evidence that Barton was eccentric, and perhaps even frequently misunderstood, but some of Bing's characterizations fall outside the ranges of an accurate telling.  Barton was a complex character who was more socially connected and savvy than any of the other Founders.  He was highly competent, yet also prone to metaphorical and allegorical flourish that could be misunderstood.  He was also struggling with the constant threat of relapse of his 'consumption,' a reality that impacted every single one of his actions and decisions.  He was a strong personality, perhaps even fairly characterized as dominant, but he was also genteel and self-deprecating all at the same time.  These layers of complexity need to be acknowledged if we are to understand the actual Founding efforts and the true relationships between the Founders.

For all of the quotations from letters that are referenced above, I have copies of the original correspondence that I made at the Wilma West Library as part of my ongoing research into this topic.  I am happy to share the source materials if anyone would like to see the documents that I am citing.  Please submit all requests in email.


Letters referenced above

Embedded links above

Barton, George E. (1917). Re-education: An analysis of the institutional system of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Bing, R.K. (1992). A Point of Departure (A Play About Founding the Profession). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 46, 27-32.

Dunne, B., Pettigrew, J., and Robinson, K. (2016). Using historical documentary methods to explore the history of occupational therapy.  British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 79, 376-384



Popular posts from this blog

When writing gives you the willies: Reconsidering 'tactile defensiveness'

Deconstructing the myth of clothing sensitivity as a 'sensory processing disorder'

On retained primitive reflexes