School of Medicine

Building independence: For 100 years, the occupational therapy program has helped people engage mind and body

Carolyn Baum, PhD, the Elias Michael Director of the Program in Occupational Therapy, interacts with students. Baum is considered one of the 100 most influential people in the field.

From the WashU School of Medicine Outlook Magazine

In 1995, Washington University’s new chancellor, Mark S. Wrighton, paid his first visit to the Program in Occupational Therapy, which is part of the School of Medicine.

Carolyn Baum, PhD, the program director, gave Wrighton a tour and asked her lean but energetic 12-member faculty to take turns describing their clinical and teaching activities. He wasn’t as impressed as she’d hoped.

“I’ll never forget it,” Baum said. “Afterward, he took me out to the hall and said, ‘Carolyn, you’re doing good things, but I really don’t support a program that just trains occupational therapists.’ And I replied, ‘We’re building an academic department. It’s going to take time — but wait and see.’”

Twenty-three years later, Baum, the Elias Michael Director and professor of occupational therapy, of neurology and of social work, and her colleagues have created a rigorous, graduate-level program aimed at advancing human health through evidence-based practice and innovative research. “If you teach students not only what they need to know and how to apply it, but also how to take the knowledge we’ve gained through research and grow with that knowledge, that makes you a discipline,” Baum said.

Today, Wrighton holds the program in high regard. “I am very proud of our occupational therapy program and the leadership of Carolyn Baum,” he said. “The program has met and exceeded our expectations and risen to become a true leader in its profession and a model for other programs nationwide.”

This year, the occupational therapy (OT) program is celebrating its 100th anniversary. A Centennial Gala Weekend is planned for Oct. 5 and 6, and the program has commissioned a history book, “The Rise of a Program and a Profession, Occupational Therapy at Washington University: The First 100 Years,” by St. Louis writer Cynthia Georges.

Spearheaded by St. Louis civic leader Rachel Stix Michael, the program opened in 1918 to train “reconstruction aides” — civilian women who could help injured World War I soldiers. These aides led soldiers in handwork such as basketry, weaving and wood-carving, as it was believed that such diversions would speed healing by keeping the mind and body engaged. Program admission was open to women at least 23 years old, “native or allied born,” with a college education and a “suitable personality.”

U.S. News & World Report now ranks the program No. 1 in the country. Baum credits this achievement, in part, to the program’s affiliation with the School of Medicine. It is one of only three OT programs nationwide with a medical school base. The relationship allows faculty to build collaborations with top researchers in neurology, pediatrics, medicine, orthopedics, plastic surgery, cancer and psychiatry. These research ties also extend to the Danforth Campus — in social work, psychology and engineering — and into the community, with some 100 agencies, such as Paraquad and the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging.

  Read more at Outlook.