Retrieved from the Dalhousie University website



In the mid-1800s, Nova Scotian's were preparing to build the first "Hospital for the Insane" on the Dartmouth waterfront. This structure would later be known, as it is today, as the Nova Scotia Hospital. Although occupational therapy was an unrealized profession at the time of the hospital's beginnings, concepts that would later become central to occupational therapy were beginning to emerge. Using exemplary facilities in England and elsewhere as models, the "moral treatment" philosophies of early advocates of mental health began to find their way into how individuals with mental illness spent their days in hospitals.

For example, gardens were thought to offer patients with a relaxing environment in which they could become calm and easier to manage. While some aspects of this line of thought highlight a medical model approach to care, it also points to the notion that creating opportunities to occupy oneself with activity may lend itself to improving the well-being of patients.

It wasn't until World War I that the need for occupational therapy in Atlantic Canada was realized. With soldiers returning from the war with phsyical and psychological traumas and, most often, with little hope of returning to the workforce, in addition to socio-political views that returning veterans could potentially burden the Canadian economy if proper rehabilitative services were not available, educational programs in occupational and physical therapies began to emerge and recruit students from all over Canada.

One such student was Mary E. Black (1895 - 1988) who is well known in Atlantic Canada for her extensive work in the arts community. Less well known is her career as a pioneering occupational therapist in Nova Scotia and beyond. Upon completing her training as a "ward aide" in 1919, Mary returned to Nova Scotia to begin working in the Kentville Sanatorium. A short time later, in 1920, she began working at the Nova Scotia Hospital with returning veterans from World War I. Eventually, she was called upon to develop the first occupational therapy program to be used with civilians in Nova Scotia.


By the 1940s, the Second World War was well underway and hospitals across Nova Scotia would eventually see the inevitable influx of returning soldiers into their wards. Once again, occuaptional therapists would find themselves working with veterans in both rehabilitative and vocational capacities. Hospitals in Halifax that would be central to these efforts were the Camp Hill Hospital, known today as the Veteran's Memorial Building, and the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital on the naval base HMCS Stadacona.

In October 1951, the Nova Scotia Society of Occupational Therapists (NSSOT) was formed to promote the profession through both education and public awareness. During the inaugural event, seven of the ten therapists working in the province were present including May E. Hamilton, Joan Curren, Bernice Bignell, Fran Merkly, and Jean Smith.2 By 1956, occupational therapy departments in both the Nova Scotia Sanitorium, in Kentville, and the Nova Scotia Rehab Centre, in Halifax, would open.2


Throughout these decades, the number of occupational therapists working in Nova Scotia continued to grow. By incentive from the provincial government, student loans and bursaries attracted a number of Nova Scotians to travel to either Toronto or Montreal to complete either an Associate's Degree in Occupational Therapy or a Combined Degree in Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapies. Returning to Nova Scotia upon completion, as conditioned by the acceptance of the government bursary, new therapists would find that yet another occupational therapy department had opened at the Victoria General Hospital.2

In 1970, the Nova Scotia Assocation of Occupational Therapists (NSAOT), known today as the College of Occupational Therapists of Nova Scotia (COTNS), was formed in response to provincial legislation requiring licensure and regulation of occupational therapists working in Nova Scotia. Like other provinces, occupational therapy in Nova Scotia was undergoing political and professional development to maintain its visibility and legitmacy among therapists, allied healthcare professions, the government and the public.

During this time of change, the NSSOT, which had formed over twenty years prior, was formally registered as a society under the Societies Act of Nova Scotia.2 For many of these years in between, disucssions among society members ensued about the development of a regional educational program for occupational therapy. After years of arduous work in both academic and legislative forums, the beginning of the 1980s would see these efforts realized with the opening of the School of Occupational Therapy at Dalhousie University. (See Early Education)


The 1980s were an exciting time for occupational therapy in Nova Scotia. With the opening of the School of Occupational Therapy at Dalhousie University in 1982, Halifax would welcome hundreds of eager students, in the years to come, looking to acquire their Bachelor of Science degree in Occupational Therapy (BScOT).

This decade would also see a flurry of activities hosted by the Nova Scotia Society of Occupational Therapists. One such occassion was publicized in an article written by Susan LeBlanc, of the Halifax Chronicle Herald, and published February 24, 1987.3 The article higlighted the Awards Ceremonies at which the NSSOT presented the first Mary Black Award, in honor of Mary Black herself, to Judith Brodie and Ardythe Parker for their efforts and contribution to the society and occupational therapy in Nova Scotia, including the establishment of the School of Occupational Therapy.3


With the growing trend of entry-level Master's programs in Occupational Therapy schools across North America, the School of Occupational Therapy at Dalhousie University set out to develop a curriculum that would take their program to new heights. With the entrance of the final Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy class in 2004, the School accepted its first entry-level Master's students in the Fall of 2006.

In the Fall of 2007, the School will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary welcoming founders and alumni alike from across the world.



1. Contributed by Peter L. Twohig for the Dalhousie University website.

2. Courtesy of Nova Scotia Society of Occupational Therapists Archives. Used with Permission.

3. LeBlanc, S (1987). Halifax natives honoured by society of therapists. In the Halifax Chronicle Herald, February 24, 1987. Courtesy of NSSOT.

For Further Reading:

McKay, Ian. (1994). Chapter 3: Mary Black and the invention of handicrafts in The quest of the folk: Antimodernism and cultural selection in twentieth-century Nova Scotia. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Twohig, Peter L. (2003). Once a therapist, always a therapist: The early career of Mary Black. Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal, 28(1), 106-17.