The 85th anniversary of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) is also the 85th anniversary of the first diploma course in occupational therapy in Canada. Those who signed on for that first course at the University of Toronto were a special group of pioneering women. Not afraid to try something new, they tolerated the lack of clarity that inevitably accompanied a new form of work; they were enthusiastic and had a sense of adventure. One member of that class was Helen Primrose LeVesconte. Already 30 years of age in 1926, most of her peers were married; those who had remained single had become teachers or nurses or social workers. But it was this new field of occupational therapy that appealed to LeVesconte. The appeal was to last throughout her lifetime. In her career as both a clinician and an educator she made remarkable contributions to the profession (Friedland & Rais, 2005).

Early influences

LeVesconte had an idea of what occupational therapists might do from her volunteer work at the Spadina Military Hospital during World War I.1 In the oral history she gave to the University of Toronto in 1975 (Schatzker, 1975), LeVesconte recalled seeing “ward aides” (later to be known as occupational therapists) at the hospital.2 They were easily identified by the green uniforms they wore. The colour of the uniforms was one reason why soldiers referred to them as Green Goddesses. It may also have had to do with the fact that the women were generally attractive and very welcome on the wards where injured soldiers lay in their beds. The ward aides not only brought good cheer and companionship, but also work in which the soldiers could engage. The work, generally in the form of crafts that could be done at the bedside, was referred to as “Bedside Occupations”. LeVesconte saw how the crafts helped the men to regain their confidence and build their self-esteem. Basketry was a good craft for the large number of soldiers with hand injuries because it required them to at least begin using their hands. Well aware at the time she gave the oral history in 1975 of the bad name that basketry had, she said, “We all ridiculed basketry, we always have, I think, from the beginning; we certainly do still, but when you come down to it, it was a very smart thing to introduce and nobody … could ever say to you, ‘I can’t do it’; ‘I can’t learn that’, you know, this kind of thing . . . A man could see his own progress.” (Schatzker, p.26).

Privileged background

As was common with women who became occupational therapists in the 1920s and 30s (Colman, 1990), LeVesconte came from a privileged family. She attended a small private school (Havergal College) from kindergarten through to (junior) matriculation, boarding there for the last two years. She was an all-round good student and although she did not excel at sports, she participated fully: in basketball, tennis, field hockey, and badminton. She credited the school with giving her a sense of sportsmanship and discipline which she found useful in life. She also gained a strong academic background in English and History, both subjects she loved. While she admired her teachers she did not find them approachable and the experience left her feeling that she did not want to be a teacher (Schatzker, 1975).

LeVesconte recalled that there was an expectation that she attend university like all the males in the family. However, it was her maternal aunt, Charlotte Ross, who was likely the role model for LeVesconte. Ross had been in the first class of women admitted to University College at the University of Toronto. She earned her bachelor of arts in 1892 and did graduate work in Paris and Berlin, coming home to teach English at the Margaret Eaton School of Expression. Ross was a trail-blazer, helping to open a path for other women and advocating for political change (Friedland & Rais, 2005).

World War I began just when LeVesconte was writing her junior matriculation exams. To enter university she would have had to take an additional year and write her senior matriculation exams. More significantly, with her father, uncles and cousins all enlisted, the time may not have seemed right for her to go back for another year of secondary school only to then start a lengthy program at the university. It was likely more acceptable that she go on to a sort of “finishing school” which would enable her to enter the work world more quickly. She attended the Margaret Eaton School of Expression where her Aunt Charlotte was teaching.3 The school specialized in English and Drama both of which interested LeVesconte greatly. Indeed, she credited the drama course with its classes in oratory and rhetoric for taking away her shyness. An accomplished student, LeVesconte regularly won prizes: in English, in Interpretation, and in Physical Education (Friedland & Rais, 2005). During school holidays she worked in a munitions plant. With the war still going on and when she graduated in 1917 she became a VAD. She was placed at the Spadina Military Hospital for what was to be a formative experience in her life. When the war ended she taught physical education at both public and private schools but did not find the work satisfying. She was still searching for the right career.

Occupational therapy at the University of Toronto, 1926

Aside from her discontent teaching Physical Education, it is unclear what motivated LeVesconte to seek a new career. A number of friends had become ward aides during the war and they may have been the ones to suggest that she enroll in the new diploma course in occupational therapy. In fact several ward aides enrolled in that first class at the University of Toronto in order to upgrade their qualifications. Within her social circle male friends who were now doctors, were voicing concern for their patients saying, “I’ve got a patient; he’s simply going to go mad if somebody doesn’t do something more than I as the doctor can do for him. Will you come in and talk to him? Will you come in and try to get him interested in something outside of himself?” (Schatzker, 1975, p.36). LeVesconte remembered wanting to help but feeling she did not have the skills to do so. The new course would provide her with what was needed. LeVesconte loved the course in occupational therapy. She could not believe the caliber of the lecturers who she referred to as being “terrifically top people”. Doctor MacFarlane, soon to be Dean of the Faculty of Medicine taught orthopaedics and medical conditions; Doctors Blatz, Bott, and Ketchum taught different aspects of Psychology; Doctor Cates taught Anatomy, and Doctor Best, Physiology. She took English with the Arts students and adored Professor Wallace. She also volunteered at the University Settlement House, fulfilling an expectation of the University of Toronto’s president that students provide such community service. LeVesconte was remembered by classmates as standing out and being a leader ever then.

A member of the new profession

Following her graduation in 1928, LeVesconte set out on a series of clinical positions. Her first job was short-term at the Toronto Curative Workshop, a position which she loved because it was in the community where she felt occupational therapists could be most useful helping patients to adjust. She then became an employee of the Ontario Department of Health and was sent to the Psychiatric Hospital at Kingston as Head of the occupational therapy department. As almost all of the work for graduates was in mental health this assignment was not surprising. Furthermore, there were no choices to be made. “You weren’t asked, you didn’t apply, you were told you were going” (Schatzker, 1975, p. 52). LeVesconte was loaned to the University of Toronto to teach in the occupational therapy program for the fall term in 1930. She reported being “absolutely petrified” at having to teach the class – but also remembered that it was satisfying.

Being employed by the province meant that LeVesconte could be sent off on other assignments; for example, to carry out surveys, or to initiate new programs within the eleven mental hospitals in Ontario. In 1933 she was appointed as a consultant for the Ontario Hospitals Division of the Department of Health. She was also transferred to the prestigious Toronto Psychiatric Hospital to be the director of occupational therapy in the first psychiatric teaching hospital in the country (Friedland, 1996).

It is curious that LeVesconte reported that she was always “told what was to happen” and not given a choice: told to go to Kingston, told to move to Woodstock, told to transfer to Toronto, told to take over the program at the University of Toronto and during World War II, told not to serve overseas. It is clear from her oral history that in her mind she was expected to do what she was told. However, it is also very clear that LeVesconte was her own person and within her various positions she was very much in charge; finding her own way and blazing her own trail.

An educator

In 1934, LeVesconte was hired (part-time) by the University of Toronto to replace Florence Wright who had been in charge of the occupational therapy program since 1926 (Friedland & Rais, 2005). The Department of Health paid her salary ($1500 per annum) at the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital and the University of Toronto gave her $500 a year “top-up” for the course. It was not until 1945 that LeVesconte decided that the occupational therapy program at the University of Toronto required her fulltime attention, and she regretfully resigned her position at the hospital.

In her 22 years as Director of Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto, LeVesconte made great and lasting contributions. She was responsible for some 1850 graduates, and helped launch many of the programs at other universities both in Canada and abroad. At a time when professional schools were more closely related to their profession than to academia, LeVesconte was devoted to the professional organizations: holding executive positions with the Ontario Society of Occupational Therapists and CAOT; helping to found and serving with the World Federation of Occupational Therapists; and being a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Committee on Education. Unlike the majority of her classmates who had married and left the profession, she remained a dedicated member throughout her life.

LeVesconte was a prolific and gifted writer. She wrote about clinical practice and the importance of the therapist-patient relationship. Of particular interest was her belief that it was the therapist’s duty to motivate and engage the patient/ client. She felt strongly that occupational therapists needed knowledge of social problems and social legislation to do their work effectively. She considered vocational rehabilitation on a continuum with occupational therapy with no firm boundary between the two – a controversial position then and now. She wrote about occupational therapy in other countries, and also about the importance of being able to communicate clearly. After her retirement she continued to work on a history of the profession.4

Helen LeVesconte retired in 1967 at age 71 and died in 1982. Her philosophy of occupational therapy permeated the educational program that she ran and, through its graduates, the whole of the profession through the first half of the 20th century (Friedland, in press). Occupational therapy was indeed fortunate that she chose to enroll in that first course, 85 years ago.

Helen LeVesconte received citation from the Unversity of Toronto.


Colman, W. (1990). Looking Back: Recruitment standards and practices in occupational therapy. 1900-1930. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 44, 742-748.

Friedland, J. & Rais, H. (2005). Helen Primrose LeVesconte: Occupational therapy clinician, educator, and maker of history. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 72, 131- 141.

Friedland, J. (1996). The department of occupational therapy. In E. Shorter (Ed.). TPH: History and Memories of the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, 1925-1966, pp. 259-270. Toronto: Wall and Emerson.

Friedland, J. (in press). The origins of occupational therapy in Canada: 1890-1930. LeVesconte, H. History of occupational therapy. Drafts, unpublished. LeVesconte private papers, Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy Archives, University of Toronto.

Schatzker, V. (1975). Helen LeVesconte, Oral History. CAOT Archives, Library and Archives Canada: Ottawa.

About the author

Judith Friedland, PhD, FCAOT is Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto. She is a past chair of the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Her research in recent years has been focussed on the early history of occupational therapy in Canada. A book on this topic is forthcoming.


1 LeVescsonte was a “VAD” during the latter years of the war. The acronym stood for “voluntary aide detachment” suggesting that each VAD was a unit (i.e., detachment) that could help. Trained by the St John’s Ambulance and/or the Red Cross VADs were generally helpful with nursing duties although some nurses felt threatened by them. One soon-to-be-famous VAD who became friends with LeVesconte was Amelia Earhart, the aviator. Anxious to be part of the war effort when her own country was not yet involved, she found the opportunity at the Spadina Military Hospital. The Toronto Star Weekly published a picture of Earhart with LeVesconte and her classmate Jenne Lewis Goodman, when Earhart, now famous, returned for a visit in 1928.

2 Most ward aides had attended training courses held at the University of Toronto (in 1918 and 1919) or at McGill University (in 1919), although some had experience in the field and no specific training.

3 Referring to the quality of the English program at Margaret Eaton and the three years’ credit in English she had received, LeVesconte said, “I never used them because I never went on to my B.A., believe it or not.” (Schatzker, 1975, p.11). She elaborated saying “it was assumed that my sister and I would go to university. Well, the war changed that.” ( p.12).

4 LeVesconte left several drafts of a History of Occupational Therapy. An ambitious project, it began by reviewing the use of occupations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and then focused on the period from 1918 -1968 for occupational therapy in the US, UK, and Canada. Sadly it was left in draft form. Professor Isobel Robinson attempted to move the project forward but found the absence of reference material a major barrier. In my forthcoming work on the history of occupational therapy in Canada, I have found the work a wonderful resource and inspiration.