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Mental Health Awareness Month: A Focus on Occupation

Early May would have been the opening of the Maryland Historical Society’s newest exhibition, Wild and Untamed: Dunton’s Discovery of the Baltimore Album Quilts, now postponed to the fall. In developing this exhibition, MdHS staff worked with occupational therapists and Lisa Illum, the Librarian and Archivist at Sheppard Pratt, to illustrate how the famous Baltimore Album Quilt tradition played into Dr. William Rush Dunton’s development of modern occupational therapy. In this article, Illum explores Dunton’s path to establishing occupational therapy in Maryland, and how his founding principles apply to life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sheppard Pratt – ladies knitting, weaving, music activity
Sheppard Pratt – ladies knitting, weaving, music activity – students, photograph by the Hughes Company, circa 1948, PP30-942-48. Hughes Studio Photograph Collection, PP30, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Historical Society.

As the month of May draws to a close during one of THE strangest and perhaps scariest times we have personally ever experienced, it would certainly be understandable if you had missed that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The current pandemic has affected every single aspect of how we conduct life, school, and business. With so much upheaval and uncertainty, it would not be surprising if every person’s mental health has taken a hit. Lives have basically been put on hold. As a matter of fact, May would have seen the opening of a wonderful exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society called Wild and Untamed: Dunton’s Discovery of the Baltimore Album Quilts. The exhibit is now slated to open this September. The Dunton referenced in the title and featured in this exhibit, is none other than Dr. William Rush Dunton, Jr.

Dr. Dunton is known as the father of modern occupational therapy. Born in Chester Hill, Pennsylvania in 1868, he received his B.S and M.A in English Literature from Haverford College and his M.D from The Pennsylvania Medical School. In August 1895, he joined the medical staff of the Sheppard Asylum, now Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore. He worked at Sheppard Pratt until 1924, when he moved on to become the medical director of Harlem Lodge located in Catonsville. Sheppard Pratt, opened in 1891, has always believed in the practice of ethical treatment of those with mental illness. Dr. Dunton helped to establish the Department of Occupational Treatment at Sheppard Pratt in 1908. Webster’s Dictionary defines occupation as “A job or profession” and “A way of spending time.” In this case, occupational therapy is the use of activities as a form of therapy. Dr. Dunton believed that patients who were involved in some form of activity daily could help restore their levels of functioning.

Building called "The Casino" at Sheppard Pratt
The Casino, 1901. Photo courtesy of Sheppard Pratt

In 1901, construction of the Casino was completed. The Casino was a recreational building containing a bowling alley, reading library, workshops, and even a gymnasium. Dr. Dunton and the patients spent a great deal of time here and on the campus grounds performing all sorts of occupations. Patients were able to participate in any number of tasks, including weaving, wood working, sewing, printing, calisthenics, and even gardening. In 1908, Sheppard Pratt formally established the Occupational Treatment department, for which Dr. Dunton was appointed the director.

Dr. Dunton in a workshop at Sheppard Pratt
Dr. Dunton in a workshop, 1920. Photo courtesy of Sheppard Pratt

Dr. Dunton himself kept busy during his employ at Sheppard Pratt. He was a founding member of the Baltimore County Medical Association in 1896, the Maryland Psychiatric Association, also in 1896, and the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (now the American Occupational Therapy Association) in 1917. He was a prolific author, and not just on occupational therapy and psychiatric matters. He developed a love of quilting and even published books on the matter. In his book Old Quilts (1946), Dr. Dunton mentioned, “It is easily understood that a nervous lady who is concentrating on making a quilt block has no time to worry over her fancied physical ill health or even over wrongs or slights which may be real, so that she is cultivating a more healthy mental attitude and habit.” He was the first member inducted into the Maryland Quilting Hall of Fame, an honor of which he would have been quite tickled.

Dr. Dunton’s theories are still relevant today. As many reading this article have probably realized, during this time of isolation daily activities can be very therapeutic for one’s mental health. The current environment probably has people finding themselves deep-cleaning their homes, finally catching up on all of the laundry, going through that one drawer with who-knows-what in it. These tasks help us to keep the mind and body busy. Even if only for a brief moment we are able to not focus on the current situation and feel ridiculously accomplished when that last item of clothing is finally hung up in the closet. Dr. Dunton would certainly agree and encourage us to make sure to perform tasks every day.

As Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close, remember that resources and organizations are available to help anyone who may need it. Please reach out to your friends or family. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) provides resources and information. Know that you are not alone and there are people who care.

Lisa Illum is the Librarian and Archivist at Sheppard Pratt, the nation’s largest not-for-profit psychiatric hospital in the country. Prior to her arrival in Baltimore, she was an academic librarian and an online advisor for several programs, including Occupational Therapy at a private 4-year university. She has never attempted quilting, but has successfully handled an occasional button from time to time.

William Rush Dunton, Jr., MD, Old Quilts (Baltimore: Privately printed, 1946, pp.3-4)

“History,” Sheppard Pratt, accessed May 29, 2020,