The history of Occupational Therapy is an interesting “story”. Many people believe that Occupational Therapy is a new profession. Its development is woven into the fabric of human existence; as, “occupation” has been central to our survival since the beginning of time.

From the very earliest surviving manuscripts and throughout the ages, in both Eastern and Western culture, references are found about the belief that occupation in the form of exercise, work, recreation and amusements can both influence and improve mental and physical health and well-being.

It was in the 1700’s, during the “Age of Enlightenment”, that the concept of Occupational Therapy began to emerge. At that time in history, the mentally ill were treated like prisoners, locked up and considered to be a danger to society. But two gentlemen: Phillipe Pinel (a French physician, philosopher, and scholar), and William Tuke (an English Quaker) started to challenge society’s beliefs about the mentally ill and a new understanding, philosophy and treatment, known as “moral treatment” emerged. Tuke, who founded a retreat centre in England, felt occupations, religion (which helped bring in the concept of family), and purposeful activities should be prescribed in order to maximize function and minimise the symptoms of the patient’s mental illness. He encouraged patients to learn and grow by engaging them in a variety of employment or ‘amusements’ (what we now call leisure activities) that were best adapted to their level of functioning and interests.

1840-1860 were the ‘golden years’ for the application of moral treatment and occupation in American hospitals. It was during this time that the benefits of arts and crafts began to be noticed. Arts and crafts thus became a commonly used activity to promote both relaxation and feelings of productivity.

In 1917, the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT) was founded and it flourished throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s until the Great Depression. It was during this time that Occupational Therapy became more closely related to and aligned with organised medicine, thus creating a ‘scientific approach’ to this field of study. It is also this organisation that would later be known as the American Occupational Therapy Association of today.

From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, the ‘rehabilitation movement’ was in full force. With the thousands of injured soldiers (physically and mentally) returning home from both World Wars, there was a surge in the demand for occupational therapists. In addition to mental health interventions Occupational Therapists also began treating physical disabilities, spinal cord injuries, amputations, traumatic brain injuries, and cerebral palsy.

In 1947 the journal, Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation and the first major textbook, Willard & Spackman’s Principles of Occupational Therapy, were published. The field of occupational therapy kept growing. During the 1960’s, as medicine became ‘specialised’, so did Occupational Therapy. Occupational therapists became qualified to treat in the fields of paediatrics (children) and developmental disabilities. And, with de-institutionalisation came an even greater need to help mentally ill, physically infirm, and developmentally challenged individuals to become independent and productive members of society.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Occupational Therapy began to focus back towards a person’s quality of life, thus becoming more involved in education, prevention, screenings, and health maintenance. Goals of Occupational Therapy could now focus on prevention, quality, and maintaining independence.

Today, occupation is the main focus of the profession. It is certainly an ever-evolving and dynamically moving profession. You will find Occupational Therapists working in a variety of settings with several different age groups. Occupational Therapy is a product of, and dependent on, a social environment that values the individual and believes that each person has the capacity to act on his/her own behalf to achieve a better state of welfare and health through occupation.

Many challenges still need to be met… the future is now!

Occupational Therapy in Europe

For more information about the profession in different European countries, please visit:

Ref: Adapted from: