Jessie Luther was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1860 and studied art and design. Her colleagues, family and current writers describe her as a proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement and a pioneer occupational therapist. In 1901, at the invitation of Jane Addams, founder of the Chicago Society of Arts and Crafts in the 1890’s, Jessie Luther went to Hull House, one of the earliest settlement houses in the United States to work with immigrants and the poor. (Some readers may associate Hull House with the eminent occupational therapist Eleanor Clarke Slagle, who came there some years after Jessie Luther, around 1910.)

Jessie Luther worked long hours at Hull House, writing in her diary that she became ill from exhaustion. It was during her own recuperation that she embraced the idea that involvement in crafts could benefit a person’s recovery. In the summer of 1903, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Jessie Luther met Dr. Herbert Hall. Together they established a sanatorium,known as the Handicraft Shop, which was an alternative for the rest cure treatment for depression, which was at the time, regarded as one of the consequences of modern urban living.

Visitors came to the Handicraft Shop because they heard about their work, using crafts such as pottery, weaving and woodworking to treat individuals recovering from “nervous collapse” and similar diseases. One of the visitors was Dr. Grenfell, who was in the area recruiting health care workers to work along the coast of Labrador and northern Newfoundland. Dr. Grenfell saw Jessie Luther’s work as useful for fishermen’s wives to supplement their meager family income. Dr. Grenfell saw occupational therapy as enhancing the quality of life for people living in poverty. Jessie Luther accepted Dr.Grenfell’s offer of seasonal employment and took a leave from her position as director of occupational therapy at Butler Hospital in Providence.

On June 29, 1906 Jessie Luther set out for the coast of northern Newfoundland and Labrador to work at the Grenfell Mission. Little did she know at the time that her work over the next ten years would lay the ground work for the future of occupational therapy in Newfoundland and beyond. The trip to St. Anthony, Newfoundland, in the summer of 1906 was interesting. Jessie Luther traveled by coastal steamer and train. When she arrived in St. Anthony it was not what she had expected. Dr. Grenfell was not present and no one was there to support her efforts to set up the industrial, the department where patients did occupation-based activities such as carpentry, weaving and stone carving.

It was summer time and many of the women she hoped to work with were busy fishing. St. Anthony at that time was a rural fishing community and Newfoundland was not a part of Canada. However, Jessie Luther found the people she met extremely hard-working and this encouraged her return next year.

Jessie Luther’s second trip was more successful as she focued on working with the women to build a sense of community and promote health. Jessie Luther set up a loom room, pottery workshop, woodworking classes for boys and social clubs for women to further develop their mat-hooking skills. In her diary she wrote, “It seems apparent that such normal and interesting occupations and the need for continued effort in their accomplishment cannot fail to improve the community’s social standard and have an influence on every day life.”

For more information on Jessie Luther, see Jessie Luther at the Grenfell Mission, edited by Ronald Rompkey, 2001. The book is based on Jessie Luther’s diaries, giving the reader insight into the life of the early occupational therapist. The book includes wonderful photographs taken by Jessie Luther that show the use of everyday occupations within a community. This book adds to our professional heritage and our early connection with the Arts and Crafts and Settlement House movements.

 

Jessie Luther: A pioneer of social justice
Brenda Head and Judith Friedland