Celebrating 106 years of occupational therapy at the University of Toronto

This week marks 106 years since the Occupational Therapy program was established at the University of Toronto. 

The department, as we know it today, has grown and evolved a lot since its early days. 

In 1918, during the first World War, the number of injured soldiers returning to Canada was increasing each day. More – and better trained ward aides were needed to help these soldiers on their long road to recovery and so the ward aides course at U of T was established. 

The ward aide course was established by Professor H.E.T. Haultain, a mining engineer in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, to help injured soldiers returning from the war. Haultain, who also served as the Vocational Officer for Ontario, organized the first courses and arranged for classes to be held in the Mining Building. 

The Mining and Chemistry Building on College Street circa 1906

The Mining and Chemistry Building on College Street circa 1906 

Credit: University of Toronto Archives 

On February 20, 1918, four students – Miss Stupart, Miss Trent, Miss Bruce and Miss Challis – commenced the ward aide course run by the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment. The initial course was just six weeks long, but there was an expectation that the students would return for additional instruction when the course had been further developed.  

Haultain with Senior Ward Aides (the Girls in Green) of the Military Hospitals of Ontario, June 1919

Haultain with Ward Aides (the Girls in Green) of the Military Hospitals of Ontario, June 1919 

Credit: University of Toronto Archives 

By March 21, 1918, the course had been extended to three months and the second class of ward aides began their studies – bringing the course enrolment to 24 ward aide students. 

In 1926, after much advocacy from the Ontario Society of Occupational Therapy (OSOT) and its members, U of T established a new two-year long diploma course described as for “young ladies who are anxious to be of service in the healing of the sick and maimed and convalescent” in an early promotional brochure. 

Class photo of the first occupational therapy diploma course in 1928

Class photo of the first occupational therapy diploma course in 1928 

Credit: Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto 

In 1946, the course was extended to three years, and in 1950, occupational therapy and physical therapy were combined into one program and brought into the Faculty of Medicine as part of the Division of Rehabilitation Medicine. 

Years later, the programs separated again to become individual degree programs, with the first students graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy degree in 1974.  

2001 was another year of transformation for the department. The department moved from its home at 256 McCaul St. to the Rehabilitation Sciences Building and the occupational therapy program was further developed into a graduate program. Today, the program admits 130 students each year – with 90 students enrolled at our St. George Campus, and 40 students enrolled at UTM’s Mississauga Academy of Medicine, which launched in 2018.  

Today, we continue to create leaders in occupational therapy through the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy degree program amid a growing demand for occupational therapists in Ontario. 

Note: Special thank you to Judith Friedland, professor emerita in the department of occupational science and occupational therapy, for her research on the history of the department, which is included in her book, Restoring the Spirit: The Beginnings of Occupational Therapy in Canada, 1890-1930, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2011.