Marion R. Spear
Occupational Therapy Pioneer, 1893-1990
In the early years of the last century, a new approach to the treatment of mental and physical illnesses unfolded. Rooted in the earlier “Arts and Crafts” and “Moral Treatment” movements, it began with the observation that mentally ill patients who had simple tasks to do seemed to improve. The pioneering work of many men and women would be required to expand and deepen this approach from its early beginnings to the medical profession now known as occupational therapy.
WMU Brown & Gold, 1957
One of these pioneers was a Kalamazoo woman named Marion Rebecca Spear, who would devote her long career to the discipline of “OT.” She would help establish, define, and enlarge it; she would set standards for teaching and for learning it; she would help write its history even as she was part of that history; and she would leave her own unique mark upon it along the way.
Kalamazoo State Hospital
Miss Spear was not a native of Kalamazoo. She was born in Hyde Park, Suffolk County, Massachusetts in 1893, the daughter of Charles Spear, a general practice attorney, and Josey (Russell) Spear. After finishing her degree at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, she accepted a job in 1916 at Danvers State Hospital as an assistant occupational therapist. Two years later she came to this city to take over the position of Director of Occupational Therapy at Kalamazoo State Hospital. She succeeded Mrs. Anna Tompkins, for whom she had worked when they were both at Danvers.
Miss Spear first came to the attention of the Kalamazoo public at Christmas time in 1918 at the Gilmore Brothers store, where she presided over an arts and crafts sale featuring the work of about 65 State Hospital patients. Articles offered for sale included baskets, hand-woven rugs, knitted sweaters, curtains, “and all sorts of fancy work.”
“By getting patients interested in this sort of thing,” she explained to the
Gazette, “we succeed in diverting their minds from their afflictions, and it has been found to be of great benefit to them.”
During this time Spear was no doubt adding to her list of “waste material” projects—things that could be made at little or no expense by makers on limited budgets. By 1939, she had enough ideas to produce three small, hand-bound and hand-illustrated volumes of instructions for projects, all organized by material—wrapping paper, wall paper, milk bottle tops, postage stamps, flour sacks, stocking tops, even casket cloth could be made into something useful or decorative. (See “Sources” below for links to digitized copies of vols. 1 and 2.)
Waste Material Series by Marion R. Spear. Kalamazoo State Hospital, 1939. Local History Room.
Patients produced many articles for the hospital’s use, such as furniture, rugs, and curtains, mattresses, brooms, brushes, and clothing—they could even repair shoes. According to the Director’s Report for 1918, patients wove 15,000 yards of toweling and canned over 30,000 gallons of fruit and vegetables. They also staged elaborately-costumed plays and pageants with all-patient casts.
One of Spear’s early goals was to invest in more OT supplies and equipment for staff to use with the patients, such as woodworking tools and a pottery kiln. But soon, noting the shortage of qualified staff, starting a school of occupational therapy for the hospital became her primary focus. Permission to do so was not immediately forthcoming, but finally in July 1922 the school was established—one of only five in the nation—with Spear as its first director.
It started out with only two students, but as the profession grew so did the school. Initially focusing on training for work with psychiatric patients, the program gradually expanded to include clinical training for work in tuberculosis, orthopedic, pediatric, and general hospitals as well.
Western Michigan College (WMU)
The years saw a steady climb in the number of enrollments and in class offerings, which from the beginning always exceeded the minimum requirements of the American Occupational Therapy Association. In 1939 it received full accreditation from the American Medical Association. Still growing, in 1944 the program moved from the State Hospital to Western Michigan College (now WMU) as a new department, headed by Spear as the college’s newest Associate Professor. By the program’s 25
th anniversary in 1947, 147 students were working toward 4-year degrees in occupational therapy.
Occupational Therapy students developing their skills at Western Michigan College of Education (later WMU), ca1948. Photo courtesy of the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections.
Spear had strict rules governing her OT students, perhaps all the stricter because the discipline was young and still earning its acceptance in the medical field. She insisted that the young women demonstrate impeccable professionalism in appearance and behavior at all times. Skirts must be a lady-like length; hair must be trimmed and tidy. Wash your white shoe laces every day, never sit on a bed, rise to your feet when a doctor or an instructor enters the room.
After graduation the students’ careers were followed with affection and interest by their former director. Spear remembered each by name and kept scrapbooks (now housed in WMU’s Regional Archive Collection) on their lives and achievements.
Spear retired in 1958, having worked forty years in occupational therapy in Kalamazoo. She turned her attention to working on the history of her field, producing
Fifty Years of Occupational Therapy in Michigan 1911-1961. The book was typed, printed, and bound for her by patients at the Kalamazoo State Hospital.
Marion Rebecca Spear died in 1990 at age 97 in Cherry Valley, New York. She is buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Her memory and influence are still alive at WMU’s OT Department, where each year a student is selected to receive the Marion R. Spear Award for “outstanding interest, dedication, and commitment to the goals of occupational therapy and for demonstrating potential for making future contributions to the profession.”
1953: Woman of Achievement, Quota Club
1960: Award of Merit, American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)
1974: Inducted into AOTA Roster of Fellows
1978: Distinguished Alumni Award, Western Michigan University
Written by Ruth Wilson, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, November 2019. Last updated 8 January 2020.