Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Occupational therapy history: A lopsided tale told by the 'designated survivors'

Some overtly prejudicial information has been published about George Barton.  In an officially sanctioned history of the occupational therapy profession, Quiroga (1995) wrote that "Barton was undoubtedly an unusual if not eccentric character, who had difficulty knowing his own identity."  She also stated that "some of Barton's writings may have created more foes than allies to the cause" and that "George Edward Barton was an occupational therapy zealot" with a "near-crusade mentality" who "was undoubtedly a difficult person with whom to work in the organizational phase of the national association" who "did not possess the interpersonal skills that he needed" and "simply did not fit the profile of what his contemporaries considered to be a professional leader."

There is very little evidence to support this level of prejudice.  Quiroga misinterprets Barton's claim to being a 'sociologist' - forgetting to consider his training under William Morris.  She fails to understand and correctly interpret Barton's metaphorical style in his paper, "Inoculation of the bacillus of work."  There is no evidence at all that suggests Barton alienated the broad medical profession.  In fact, his minimal involvement in NSPOT following his resignation makes it nearly impossible to have had some negative impact on the developing profession.

As I have been documenting for the last several years, it is probably very fair to state that Barton was eccentric - but the extreme negativity is unwarranted.  Based on a study of correspondence between the Founders it is more accurate to state that the negative feelings towards Barton resulted from his withdrawal of his participation as an officer, the reluctance of and social mores preventing others to assume leadership roles at the time, and slow revisionism and selective 'remembering.'

Within 15 years of the founding meeting in Clifton Springs, five extremely influential individuals passed away: Barton, Herbert Hall, Susan Tracy, Susan Cox Johnson, and Thomas Kidner.  The truth is that Barton was not even alive long after the founding and could not have had much if any negative impact.  This series of deaths essentially left Slagle and Dunton to tell the occupational therapy story, and even though an attempt was made in 1967-8 at the 50th anniversary to obtain a more accurate picture of what happened around the founding, the effort clearly fell short.

Negative attributions of Barton were reinforced over  time.  In her farewell address to the profession, Slagle simultaneously respected and jabbed at George Barton's legacy:

 "In the words of the first President of this Association, Mr. George Barton, who retained the office six months and resigned because we were in debt $150 (lawyer's fee for legal services and organization papers) and because we saw no immediate way of raising the salary of a Secretary.  "I relinquish the honour of being your officer, proud to have been of any assistance to a cause so noble, and I lay down the office content in the knowledge that it can be more ably filled."

In fact, Barton did not relinquish his office because of the debt itself, but only because as President and Secretary he and Isabel could not take on the burden of fronting these fees by themselves.  Barton resigned his office in a letter to Dunton dated July 23, 1917 where he wrote

After very careful consideration, I have decided not to accept the possible renomination as President of the Society, but to withdraw in your favor.  This seems to me to be the eminently proper thing to do, and it will probably redound to the benefit of the Society.  I am not, of course, withdrawing my interest, and hope to be allowed still some word in its councils. 

In response on July 27, 1917 Dunton wrote to Barton, stating

I am extremely sorry that you should have reached the conclusion that you have, but I hope that you will reconsider it.  I am also sorry that you will not be presenting at the New York meeting.  I hope that you can make arrangements to be present as it seems to me that it would create a bad impression if you are not.  However, you are the best judge of your own conduct as I am not familiar with these circumstances which have brought about your decision.  I naturally feel like calling you and Miss Newton slackers, quitters, etc, but my natural politeness restrains me."

On the same day (July 27, 1917) Dunton also wrote to Slagle stating

I presume you have received Mr. Barton's notice.  I do not know what is the trouble, but am inclined to think that he has grown somewhat piqued.  I had written to him on Wednesday asking him to reconsider his decision of which he had written me, but evidently he had already made up his mind and my letter reached him too late to influence him.  He 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.

Barton responded to Dunton on August 8, 1917

I am sorry for the tone of your letter of August 6, and feel that your attitude is most unjust.  Also it seems a little strange to me that you are unable to understand that it is impossible for me to pay the salary of the Secretary of the Society.  When I undertook at your request to get things started and get together, I neither undertook to give up all my life to the Society nor to pay its expenses.

There is no record of the "August 6" letter in the AOTF archives that I could locate.  It may be a date error or there may have been an additional letter from Dunton that is not available.  Either way, Barton was quite clear on why he had to relinquish his office.  It is also quite clear that Dunton was irritated by the action and did not understand Barton's concern.

Slagle and Dunton carried their negative perceptions of Barton forward.  Barton's role in the founding was minimized and sometimes even left out of the history altogether.  Dr. Sidney Licht, a student of Dunton, wrote the following in 1948 even though he had no direct knowledge of Barton at all

This brief history comes to an end with the coining of the phrase Occupational Therapy.  Many non-medical persons have made considerable contributions to the field of medicine and it was left to a layman to coin this term.  George E. Barton, an architect by training, was greatly impressed by the type of work accomplished by Grohman and Hall and helped to organize at Clifton Springs, New York, an institution where by means of occupation, people could be retrained or readjusted to gainful living... Mr. Barton was an extremist and although he contributed much in the way of enthusiasm, he retarded the acceptance of occupational therapy by physicians as a result of his unbounded claims concerning the therapeutic value of work... It would be well to forget all but two of George Barton's words - occupational therapy.

Dr. Licht's comments are all the more curious in consideration of his admitted lack of information on Barton and the founding of NSPOT/AOTA.

George Barton published more early literature on occupational therapy than any of the other founders and was instrumental in coordinating and organizing the Consolation House meeting.  He understood the problem of disability from multiple perspectives, had knowledge of how to start and organize groups, and was motivated by his own spiritual and physical reformation.  Perhaps he was zealous and he was probably eccentric, but neither of those characteristics warrant the negative perceptions that have been published.

The evidence is clear and indicates that he is guilty of a simple thing: he could not afford to front the money by himself to support a fledgling Society.

I understand that some narrative approaches include a degree of sanitizing facts related to personal interactions of historical figures.  However, since so much prejudicial information has already been published about Barton it seems reasonable to delve into source documents and letters between the founders to correct the historical record.

The centennial anniversary of the occupational therapy profession offers a good opportunity to reappropriate Barton's contributions and cast them with a more even-handed perspective.

Since there is ample access to source historical documents, it is not correct to have the narrative dictated by the prejudices of the 'designated survivors.'


Correspondence retrieved from Wilma West library, AOTA Archives, and...

Barton, G.E. (1917). Inoculation of the bacillus of work. The Modern Hospital, 8(6), 399-403.

Licht, S. (1948). Occupational therapy source book. Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore.

Slagle, E.C. (1937). Editorial: From the heart. Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation, 16, 343-345.

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