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After 75 years, UW-Madison’s occupational therapy program building on tradition of excellence

September 05, 2018

The field of occupational therapy emerged as a profession in the United States just more than 100 years ago, with practitioners using occupational pursuits to promote health and well-being among World War I veterans and people with mental health conditions.

Yet even when UW-Madison’s occupational therapy program was founded in 1943, the field of OT was still establishing itself as a vital health care profession.

“There were very few practitioners and the field was growing very slowly,” Caroline Thompson, who became director of the university’s OT program in 1945 and served in that capacity until 1976, said in a 1996 interview.  “Very few people knew of (OT). There were only five or six training programs in the United States.”

OT Painting
UW-Madison's occupational therapy program at one point
utilized a good deal of arts and crafts as therapeutic tools
and nationally known artists from the university's Art
Department would contribute to the instruction of classes.
Academic courses initially focused on preparing students to work in the areas of mental health, tuberculosis care, general medicine, pediatrics and orthopedics, with UW-Madison’s OT program being jointly administered by the School of Education and the Medical School.

In an effort to demonstrate its value, the program was dedicated to rigorous academic standards, and teaching evidence-based practices and interventions -– a foundation from which faculty, staff, students and alumni continue to build a tradition of excellence.

“I think the doctors were the ones who saw that patients needed more than drugs and exercise,” Thompson, who died at the age of 95 in 2004, said in 1996. “They saw we were producing results. And as doctors worked with occupational therapists to reduce patient recovery times, insurance companies took notice. Once the funding was there, the field really started to grow.”

Today, UW-Madison’s occupational therapy program is housed within the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and is regarded as one of the very best in the United States. To recognize and honor the past while looking to enhance this legacy into the future, the program is hosting a 75th anniversary celebration Sept. 13-15. The schedule kicks off with a Welcome Party at the Memorial Union’s Tripp Commons on Thursday night, Sept. 13, includes a research symposium, the 39th annual Caroline Thompson Lecture and an alumni banquet on Friday, Sept. 14, and wraps up with a brunch and trip to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 15, to watch the Badgers football team host BYU. (For details, visit the 75th Anniversary Celebration web page.)

“We are not simply celebrating a program’s longevity,” says School of Education Dean Diana Hess. “The exceptional research, scholarship and instruction that have kept our university’s OT program at the forefront of its field for decades are both impressive and worthy of this wonderful occasion.”

OT class of 1951
Members of the university's occupational therapy program,
Class of 1951, pose for a photo​.
In its early years -- and even as it grew to become the second largest program in the country by the mid-1950s, with an enrollment of 150 students -- UW-Madison’s occupational therapy program was thriving despite some rather humble roots. After World War II, UW-Madison’s enrollment nearly doubled due to the wave of veterans returning and the campus built numerous new and temporary facilities. Both the OT and physical therapy programs’ offices and classrooms were housed within a temporary building, T-14, during this period.

“As students of that era will remember, (the temporary facilities) were uncomfortably hot in the summer, icy in the winter and were infested with mice,” Alice Punwar, who earned her undergraduate degree in OT from UW-Madison in 1954, writes in a short essay about student life in the 1950s. “Miss Thompson was in the habit of draping a raincoat over her filing cabinet before she left her office each day so that the student files wouldn’t get wet if it rained.”

Punwar, who returned to campus in 1969 as a faculty member, also recalls how, during the 1950s, “instructors for the occupational therapy curriculum were drawn from all over the campus and were often important names in their field.” The medical school, notes Punwar, provided eminent doctors who offered lectures in psychiatry, neurology, rehabilitation, general medicine and surgery. The Anatomy Department utilized cadavers that had been dissected by medial students to teach both OT and physical therapy students gross anatomy. During this period, Punwar adds that OT was using a variety of arts and crafts as therapeutic tools – and nationally known artists from the Art Department contributed instruction.

While OT continues to draw on various realms and sciences to inform its practices, the field of occupational science today is a highly regarded pursuit of its own. Curriculum improvements within UW-Madison’s OT program included the addition of the first research methods course in 1964 and a class in OT theory for those in the junior year of the program.

UW-Madison alumna Ruth Zemke, who received her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy at UW-Madison in 1965 and enjoyed an award-winning career as a faculty member at the University of Southern California, says that once occupational science started to be taken seriously by federal funding agencies in the mid-1990s, OT’s proven impact on health and well-being was finally able to take off.

Zemke in 2017 was named one of OT’s “100 Influential People” by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and in 2018 she received the profession’s highest honor from the American Occupational Therapy Association, the Award of Merit. Among her many accomplishments, Zemke is regarded as a pioneer in the development of occupational science, which is the study of human participation in the world.

Today, UW-Madison faculty and staff lead a highly regarded research enterprise that has secured more than $8 million in federal research grants over the past five years alone. At the 75th celebration, renowned professors emeriti and highly regarded scientists Betty Hasselkus and Mary Schneider, along with Tracy Bjorling, will showcase scientific and practice-based presentations of alumni and current faculty during the symposium.

In an effort to maintain its high quality and better meet the needs of students, the UW-Madison OT program in the early 1970s required students to meet minimum standards for admission. The program continued to evolve and add options, and in 1985 launched a post-professional master’s degree in therapeutic science (MS-TS) to serve the advanced learning needs of occupational or physical therapists seeking career advancement. It was 1996 when the Ph.D. in kinesiology, therapeutic science track (now occupational science track), was established.

After a 60-year history, the occupational therapy program phased out its bachelor of science degree to meet the standards of the Accreditation Council of Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). Starting in 2007, all entry-level occupational therapists were required to graduate with post-baccalaureate degrees. So in 2005 UW-Madison launched its professional master’s degree in occupational therapy (MS-OT), with an emphasis on research and critical thinking skills.

Most recently, in 2016, UW-Madison started its doctor of occupational therapy program (OTD), to enable practitioners to advance their careers through a part-time, predominantly online curriculum. The OTD program is designed to train occupational therapists to become visionary leaders who will help transform our nation’s health and education systems, as well as address the needs of an aging society.

Ruth Benedict
UW-Madison’s OT program was ranked 14th in the nation, out of 164 programs, according to U.S. News and World Reports’ 2016 Best Graduate Schools ratings.

“Our professional occupational therapy program is one of the oldest and most successful in the United States, while our advanced graduate programs are actively preparing the next generation of occupational therapy educators, leaders and scholars,” says UW-Madison’s Ruth Benedict, a professor and director of the OT program. “The success of our program rests, in large part, on the outstanding faculty and staff who teach our classes and conduct research at the cutting edge of occupational science.”

Adds Benedict: “This program enjoyed a great deal of success in its first 75 years – and we are excited to build from that strong foundation to bolster the university’s tradition of excellence and educate occupational therapists who will promote the health and well-being of our state, our nation and the global community for years to come.”

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