100 years of OT: A century shaped by excellence and innovation

Collage of the occupational therapy program from the 1940s thru today

In 1918, the Milwaukee-Downer College became the first liberal arts college to offer a course of study in occupational therapy. As the college grew and evolved into the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that we know today, so too did the Occupational Therapy program expand over the last century.

As the College of Health Sciences commemorates 100 Years of OT at UWM, we celebrate the rich history of the discipline and the men and women who helped to shape it.

Humble beginnings

In 1905, then president of Milwaukee Downer College, Ellen Sabin, introduced the first course in occupational therapy offered at any college. With roots in domestic science, the study of household skills, such as cooking, sewing and home economics, occupational therapy was designed to help injured soldiers returning from World War I regain their physical abilities. The first graduating class from Milwaukee-Downer College with certificates in Occupational Therapy matriculated in 1921.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the OT program continued to expand and gain national recognition. In 1928, Henrietta McNary received her baccalaureate degree and certificate in OT and became the president of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), which remains the premier organization in the field to this day.

Milwaukee proved to be fertile ground in which to grow the burgeoning OT field, rich with community partners, opportunities and support. In 1973, UWM approved a bachelor’s degree in OT and became one of only three programs in the state. Offering bachelor’s, master’s and an interdisciplinary doctoral degree programs today, US News and World Report ranked the OT program at UWM in the top 20 OT programs in the nation.

Today’s OTs change lives

Occupational Therapists (OTs) are part of a vitally important profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities.

OTs enable people to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health and prevent – or live better with – injury, illness, or disability. Common interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injuries to regain skills, and providing support for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.