The energy that sparked a profession

O'Brien smiled faintly. "You are no metaphysician, Winston," he said. "Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?"


"Then where does the past exist, if at all?"

"In records. It is written down."

"In records. And- ?"

"In the mind. In human memories." (Orwell, p. 205).

One telling of the history of the American Occupational Therapy Association is captured in Virginia Quiroga's book "Occupational Therapy: The First Thirty Years 1900-1930." The opening statement in her text regarding George Barton is "Studying George Barton's career in occupational therapy is like trying to follow the course of a comet: after a moment of brilliance as it races across the night sky, it suddenly burns out."  (p. 116).

Quiroga's work is admirable particularly because the text was published in 1995, before the Internet was functionally available as a research tool.  The fact that she gathered as much information as she did is quite remarkable.  However, her analysis of Barton in the text is not complete, and many records are now available that may not have been available at the time her book was published.

In her telling, she speculates on what she considers the curious nature of his participation, partially supported by the constricted number of  letters and other writings that were available to her at the time.  This limitation of data likely drove her to wonder: "What accounts for such a rapid rise and fall?  Was Barton an enigma?  Did his colleagues fear that his enthusiasm would damage occupational therapy's fragile public image?  Barton was an architect; did his fellow founders disapprove of his lack of medical credentials?" (p. 116).

It is important to revisit historical accounting of events because it allows us to develop an enriched understanding when more data becomes available. I appreciate Quiroga's characterization that Barton's participation was like a comet - full of energy, momentarily noticed, and then gone.  The reality of the comet, however, is that it exists before we can see it.  It has mass and energy and a history.  It comes from somewhere.

Where did Barton come from?  What explains the 'energy?'

It turns out that 'energy' as a concept is an integral part of the story.  To understand why, we need to examine the philosophies that impacted Barton in very direct and personal ways.

William James is commonly referred to as the 'father of American psychology.'  James was a pragmatist whose lifework revolved around a study of the functional mental states and psychological adaptation.  In 1906 he delivered his famous speech 'The Energies of Men' where he identifies that there is a latent adaptive force that allows people to act, even in the face of fatigue or other stressors.  However, he also importantly notes: "Of course there are limits: the trees don't grow into the sky. But the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use."

George Barton was on a trajectory where he would find that James' characterizations were absolutely true. People have limits.

William James was not just a philosopher - he wanted his ideas to be applied.  His ideas were noted by his friend Elwood Worcester, who was pastor of the Emmanuel Church in Boston.  Worcester stated, "I admired it so much that he was good enough to give it to me and permitted me to publish it in a series of tracts distributed by Emmanuel Church (Worcester, 1931, p. 239).

Worcester was interested in energy and in how people could recover after illness.  He was a maverick in his time.  He was trained in psychology, although psychology was barely even a recognized science.  He applied his basic understanding of psychology within the context of his ministry at the Emmanuel Church.  While Worcester collaborated with physicians who were not afraid to cross over the strict boundaries of 'science' and embrace the radical concept of a 'mind cure' to some problems - Barton's energy and momentum was rapidly ascendant.

When Worcester started his ministry at the Emmanuel Church, Barton was on his own trajectory.  They did not know each other in the early 1900s, but it was their ultimate meeting and interaction 100 years ago (in 1914) that started Barton on his new occupation.

Barton's energy was building, and would ultimately contribute to his undoing.  Worcester, driven by James philosophy and his own ministry, was learning everything that he needed to know in order to help Barton.

In totally separate but serendipitous action, Barton's energy and Worcester's understanding of energy would soon spark a profession.


James, W.  The Energies of Men” delivered as the Presidential Address before the American Philosophical Association at Columbia University, Dec. 28, 1906.

Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., Inc.

Quiroga, Virginia A.M. (1995). Occupational therapy: The first 30 years 1900-1930.  Bethesda: AOTA Press. 

Worcester, E. (1931). Body, Mind, and Spirit.  Boston: Marshall Jones.


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