Celebrating Women’s History Month: Pioneering Women in Occupational Therapy

Two women having a pleasant conversation.

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women throughout history and their impact on various fields, including occupational therapy (OT). The field of occupational therapy owes much to the pioneering women who shaped its foundations, advocating for holistic, client-centered care. Their legacies continue to influence the practice and evolution of OT, inspiring new generations of therapists. Let’s honor some of these remarkable women and their contributions to the field.

Eleanor Clarke Slagle: The Mother of Occupational Therapy

Eleanor Clarke Slagle is often referred to as the “mother of occupational therapy” for her instrumental role in establishing the profession. Slagle began her career in the early 20th century, focusing on the therapeutic use of occupation for individuals with mental illnesses. In 1917, she organized the first professional school for occupational therapists, emphasizing the importance of activity in treatment and rehabilitation. Slagle’s visionary work laid the groundwork for occupational therapy’s holistic approach, integrating the patient’s environment, interests, and activities into their care.

Clara Barton: A Pioneer in Humanitarian Aid

While Clara Barton is best known for founding the American Red Cross, her contributions to the early concepts of occupational therapy are noteworthy. Barton’s work during and after the Civil War highlighted the importance of providing not just medical care but also engaging activities to soldiers and civilians affected by the conflict. Her efforts in organizing nursing services and recreational activities for wounded soldiers showcased the therapeutic value of occupation and social participation, principles central to OT.

Susan Cox Johnson: Promoting Occupational Therapy as a Profession

Susan Cox Johnson was a designer, arts and crafts teacher, and occupational therapy advocate who worked to establish OT as a recognized profession. Johnson believed in the therapeutic value of crafts and productive activities, promoting the idea that engaging in meaningful work could have rehabilitative benefits for individuals with disabilities and illnesses. She was instrumental in organizing the early occupational therapy community, advocating for professional standards, and emphasizing the need for trained practitioners.

Helen Willard and Clare Spackman: Authors and Educators

Helen Willard and Clare Spackman significantly contributed to the education and professional development of occupational therapists. They co-authored “Principles of Occupational Therapy,” one of the first comprehensive textbooks in the field, which has been used for decades to train OT students. Their work helped standardize the curriculum for occupational therapy education and provided a foundational knowledge base that has been built upon by subsequent generations.


These pioneering women, among many others, have shaped the field of occupational therapy into what it is today—a vital health profession dedicated to improving individuals’ lives through meaningful occupation. Their innovative thinking, dedication to service, and advocacy for occupational therapy have left an indelible mark on the profession. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s remember and honor the contributions of these remarkable women to occupational therapy. Their legacies continue to inspire and guide occupational therapists around the world, ensuring that the field remains dynamic, compassionate, and client-centered.

Two women having a pleasant conversation.
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