1915-2008

Teacher. Innovator. Founder. Academic. Teacher. Mentor. These are some of the words that come to mind when reflecting on the passing of Isobel Robinson. Isobel died at the age of 93 on April 22. She leaves a legacy to the profession of occupational therapy that will not diminish over time.

Isobel had a passion for occupational therapy that was incomparable as evidenced by her achievements over the decades. Through her leadership, she changed the course of occupational therapy education in Canada, helped found a number of key organizations that greatly aided the development of the profession, and provided key contributions at provincial, national and international levels.

Born in 1915, Isobel grew up in Hamilton and while a student at McMaster University became interested in occupational therapy after hearing about the work done by an occupational therapist at the “Hamilton San”, the Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium (a sanatorium for people suffering from tuberculosis). She moved to Toronto to attend the program at the University of Toronto and received her diploma in occupational therapy in 1939. Her first clinical work was at the Ontario Hospital in Toronto, which is now a part of what is known as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

In 1943, Isobel was asked to teach in the occupational therapy diploma program at the University of Toronto. Her career as an academic would span more than four decades and saw the education of occupational therapists move from a diploma course taught in the extension department at the University of Toronto to a four year program culminating in a Bachelor of Science (OT). Isobel’s leadership was instrumental in this move toward enhancing the profession’s academic credentials. She also helped ensure that a program was put in place to allow diploma graduates to upgrade their qualifications to a degree.

Isobel became director of the Division of Occupational Therapy in the University of Toronto’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine in 1967. Eager to get other occupational therapy educators communicating with each other, she was one of the driving forces in what eventually became the Association of Canadian Occupational Therapy University Programs. During this time Isobel also completed her own bachelor’s degree, underlining a commitment to life-long learning.

Having taught for 37 years, Isobel retired from academia in 1981. She continued working all the same. She became committed to the need to record the history of the profession and became CAOT’s first archivist. She also looked to the future and was keen to develop the profession further. In 1973, Isobel was involved in the incorporation of Community Occupational Therapists and Associates (COTA), a community-based not-for-profit agency that brought occupational therapy into the community.

In 1983, she helped found the Canadian Occupational Therapy Foundation (COTF) which was established to support research and scholarship in the field of occupational therapy and continues its work today. COTF awards the Isobel Robinson Historical Research Grant to assist people studying the history of occupational therapy in Canada.

It is fitting that in her wide-ranging career, Isobel was given an honorary degree from the University of Alberta. She was also a life member in the Ontario Society of Occupational Therapists, the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists and the World Federation of Occupational Therapists— three organizations which Isobel served in a wide range of influential positions.

In her Eulogy, Dr. Judith Friedland, Professor Emerita of of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto—herself a student of Isobel’s—said: “Isobel’s passing ,marks the end of an era in occupational therapy. We were all blessed to have her among us and she will be well remembered.”

Oral history by Judith Friedland