Celebrating 100 Years of Occupational Therapy

by Laurel C. Wemett

Staying as healthy and productive as possible despite a chronic health condition often depends on having access to occupational therapy. Countless people of all ages do things they desire or need to do and maintain their independence thanks to learning self-help methods for the function of daily living. While using occupations (work and play activities) as therapy can be dated to ancient times, occupational therapy as a profession was actually founded 100 years ago in Ontario County.

On March 15, 1917, George Edward Barton (1871-1923), his future wife, Isabel Newton (1891-1975), and a handful of others gathered in Clifton Springs to establish the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy, now The American Occupational Therapy Association Inc. (AOTA). Today AOTA is based in Bethesda, Maryland, with a membership of approximately 60,000 representing the interests and concerns of over 200,000 practitioners and students throughout the U.S. In 2017 centenary celebrations in Clifton Springs will bring the origins and history of this vital profession to new generations.

“It is exciting that our local community is such a rich source of history for the occupational therapy profession,” says Dr. Christopher Alterio, OT and OTR, who has a post-professional clinical doctorate in occupational therapy (OT). “George Barton and the work he did at Consolation House in Clifton Springs sparked the creation of a profession that has gone on to help millions of people all over the world. That is an amazing legacy that had an important start right here in the Finger Lakes.”

In March the anniversary of the founding of AOTA was marked at Clifton Springs’ Foster Cottage where historic photographs of occupational therapy are currently on view. Special activities are planned during the village’s annual Sulphur Springs Festival on June 2 and 3 (sulfurspringsfestival.com). The popular festival began in 1996 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Clifton Springs Sanitarium, a prominent Clifton Springs’ landmark where AOTA founder George Barton sought relief from numerous physical ailments.
Clifton Springs’ Sanitarium

The Sanitarium, completed in 1896, was the third set of buildings which served as the center of the “Water Cure” established by Dr. Henry Foster (1821-1901). Foster, attracted by the village’s highly sulphured water, settled in Sulphur Springs (later Clifton Springs) around 1850. For decades people came for rest, relaxation and to bathe in the mineral waters at the “Old San” as the Sanitarium was known. In 1917, when George Barton and others founded AOTA, the Clifton Springs Sanitarium was a modern medical facility. The sanitarium identification was eliminated in 1959 when it became the Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic. Ultimately, the San’s medical role ended with the building of a new hospital in 1972 and today the refurbished Victorian-era building provides senior housing as Spa Apartments.

The formation of the occupational therapy group in Clifton Springs is “a tale of happenstance,” says Dr. Alterio who has extensively researched George Barton and the beginnings of occupational therapy as a profession. Barton, a Massachusetts native and practicing architect who had no direct ties in this area, relocated from Colorado Springs to Clifton Springs in 1914 after he experienced severe bouts of tuberculosis, paralysis and amputation of two toes.

“The advertising of the San from that era would appeal to Barton,” explains Alterio. The sanitarium was described as “a progressive facility that offered state of the art approaches, and was marketed as a place of convalescence and relaxation.” There was also the attraction of the springs and the village’s rural, wholesome setting.

Additionally, before occupational therapy was officially constructed as a profession says Dr. Alterio, the Sanitarium had a history of doing this kind of work. “Starting in 1910 they had an ‘industrial department’ where they did what they called ‘occupation therapy.’” George Barton convalesced at the sanitarium and then devoted the rest of his life to the rehabilitation of others, after turning a private home into Consolation House, an early rehabilitation center. Isabel Newton, then the bookkeeper at a Geneva preserving and canning plant, was invited to become his secretary. The couple married in 1918 and Isabel worked alongside George teaching occupations to the residents of the Consolation House until Barton’s death in 1923.

Gathering at Consolation House

What makes George Barton and Clifton Springs notable is that Barton communicated with people doing similar therapeutic work at other places although it was called by different names. “He organized them to come to Clifton Springs and form a ‘society’ so that they could standardize and advance their efforts,” explains Dr. Alterio. Barton is also credited with officially naming the profession occupational therapy.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the AOTA’s founding, an article by Isabel Barton appeared in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. “Consolation House, 50 years ago” documented the meeting with the four other founders: Dr. William A. Dunton, Thomas B. Kidner, Eleanor Slagle, and Susan C. Johnson. Barton described Consolation House as a “simple clapboarded country house” with an “old red barn.” A “weed patch” on an adjacent vacant lot became a garden. The transformed buildings and property became the setting for experimental projects offered to “incapacitated individuals.”
When George Barton died, activities at Consolation House ceased, but efforts for patient rehabilitation grew all over the country, says Dr. Alterio. “They certainly continued at the Clifton Springs hospital, and now there is an occupational therapy private practice in Clifton Springs.” Consolation House still stands but today it is a private home.

Dr. Alterio will offer a free presentation, “George Barton: How One Man’s Loss and Redemption Influenced the Occupational Therapy Profession,” on Saturday, June 3, in Clifton Springs. The discussion will focus on “Barton’s artistic, literary, and social connections, and describe how they influenced his architectural career, his leisure pursuits, and his sense of personal meaning.” Further, the creation and naming of Consolation House, the selection of the phoenix as its symbol, and the use of the motto “Beauty for ashes” will all be analyzed in context of Barton’s experiences.

Dr. Alterio, owner of a private occupational therapy practice in East Amherst, New York, and full time professor at Keuka College, is among those on this year’s local centennial planning committee. Other members include Clifton Springs’ historian, Jim Conners; Steven Egidi, owner of Hand & Occupational Therapy in Clifton Springs; plus other members of the Chamber of Commerce and representatives from Nazareth College and Bryant & Stratton College, where occupational therapy programs are also offered.


OT Explained
From the brochure by AOTA, “What is Occupational Therapy?

“Imagine if an accident, injury, disease, or condition made it difficult for you to participate in your daily activities. A wrist injury means that getting dressed in the morning is painful. Arthritis makes driving challenging. Autism may hinder a child from interacting effectively with classmates. A traumatic brain injury keeps a wounded warrior out of active duty because of difficulties with memory and organizational skills. Or a small change in your activities or the environment could prevent a future condition (such as using ergonomics at work to avoid injury).

“Occupational therapy allows people across the lifespan to do the activities they want and need to do. An occupational therapist will evaluate your situation and, with input from you (and perhaps your family, care provider, or friend), develop individualized goals that allow you to resume or pursue your valued occupations. After you develop goals with your occupational therapist, you will work together on a specific intervention plan to help improve or maintain your ability to perform daily activities and reach your goals getting back to your life.”

For more information visit aota.org