Fearless Females: Susan Elizabeth Tracy and Eleanor Clark

Eleanor Clark Slagle

Well, I totally forgot to post this in April. At least I’m only two days late…

April is National Occupational Therapy Month.

There is an old saying that goes something like, “if you want something done right, ask a woman.” That is exactly how occupational therapy (OT) got its start. In the early 1900s, two women, nurse Susan Elizabeth Tracy and social worker Eleanor Clark Slagle changed how OT would be viewed forever.

OT has its roots in treating mental illness in the 18th and 19th centuries. It became a new field of study under Dr. Benjamin Rush of Baltimore around the turn of the 20th century, as he explored how doing occupational activities might help patients heal by keeping them busy. In 1917 he co-founded the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy and authored one of the first textbooks on the subject Occupational Therapy: A Manual for Nurses in 1918. Because of this, he is often called “the father of occupational therapy.”

However, two women actually beat him to the punch.

Susan E. Tracy
Susan E. Tracy actually wrote the first American book on OT, Studies in Invalid Occupations, in 1910, eight years before Dr. Rush, and is credited with performing the “first systemic studies on occupational therapy.”

Little is known about her life and no photos of her exist. She was born in 1864 or 1878 to a family of teachers. She studied nursing in Massachusetts and after graduation in 1898, she went to work as a nurse at Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago, where she established an OT department and began teaching OT to nurses. In 1906, she gave a series of lectures at the Adams-Nervine Asylum in Boston. Sometime before 1912, she became an administrator at a nursing school. In 1912, she opened an OT practice, where she also taught nurses and focused on using OT to help disabled soldiers wounded in WWI. Elizabeth is recognized as one of the founders of The American Occupational Therapy Association. She died in 1928 in Massachusetts.

Eleanor Clark Slagle
Eleanor May Clark was born on October 13, 1870, to William John and Emeline Clark in Hobart, New York. Little is known of her childhood other than she went by the name Ella May Clark. She married Robert E. Slagle in Chicago, but the two later divorced.

Her education is also fuzzy. Eleanor attended Claverack College in Columbia City, New York, but it is unclear if she graduated or left school to get married. By her late 30s, she worked with the mentally ill at Hull House in Chicago. In 1911, she attended a course at the UC Chicago School for Civics and Philanthropy that “taught occupations and amusements to staff working at state institutions.” From 1912-1914, she was director of the department of occupational therapy at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1914, Eleanor resigned and returned to Chicago, where she gave lectures at the Chicago School for Civics and Philanthropy and taught OT at Hull House. In 1915, she created the first organized OT training program at the Henry B. Favill School of Occupations in Chicago which helped the emerging field become recognized as legitimate by the medical profession.

In 1917, Eleanor became general superintendent of occupational therapy for all of the Illinois state hospitals and was a founding member of the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy. She was part of this organization until 1937, serving as secretary-treasurer, vice president and president (1919-1920) and founding its headquarters in New York City in 1922.

Eleanor spent the next 20 years promoting OT as director at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. Encyclopedia Britannica credits her with “demonstrat[ing] the first large-scale occupational therapy program for a state hospital system and also found[ing] an annual training institute for state therapists that became a model for similar programs throughout the United States.” During her career, she trained over 4,000 nurses in OT.

Eleanor died of heart issues on September 18, 1942, in New York and is rightfully called “the mother of occupational therapy,” standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Benjamin Rush.

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