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Trail blazers: WAIT’s first occupational therapists reunite to celebrate 50 years

Alumni News

The year is 1969. On Wellington Street in Perth city, a young neuropathologist in a white lab coat exits Royal Perth Hospital. In his hands he carries a silver tray, covered with a thin, white cloth. Beneath the cloth are brains and spinal cords, specimens for the morning’s lecture, which he will soon deliver to the state’s first tertiary cohort of occupational therapy students.

Group photo of the 1969 cohort of occupational therapy students.
Trailblazers: WAIT's first cohort of OT students at their 50th reunion (see end of article for a full list of names).

“He [the neuropathologist] was gentle natured and good looking, and secretly I think every girl might’ve had a crush on him. He was a fantastic lecturer, as were all the medical specialists that lectured us in their specific disciplines.”

So recalls Glenys Swartz, one of 22 students to enrol in occupational therapy when it was first offered at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) in 1969. While half a century has since passed, Glenys and her peers remain exceptionally close, bonded by their student experience.

Last week, 19 of the seasoned occupational therapists, most now retired, travelled from all around Australia and even overseas to come together in Perth and celebrate their 50th anniversary. Festivities included a morning tea at the Curtin Perth campus, a boat cruise and lunch in the city, but the definitive highlight was the myriad stories the group shared of their time blazing the trail.

“When I left school there were very few career options available for females. The major options were teaching and nursing. I wanted to pursue something in health, but not nursing,” Glenys says.

“Occupational therapy sounded interesting and my parents were very supportive of this option. I started the course not having any real understanding of what an OT did.”

Glenys soon learned that occupational therapists help people with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities to be as independent as possible, and participate in everyday activities they find meaningful.

A black and white photograph of female students practising wood work skills in a workshop.

WAIT OT students had to learn a range of specialised skills, such as carpentry, in order to teach those skills to clients. Credit: Curtin Information Management and Archives

“OT offered the merge of human caring, manual skills and professionalism that I was looking for at that time,” says Rodney Corker, who was the only male of the group and spent most his OT career in the US.

Up until the 1960s, occupational therapists in WA either trained interstate or came from overseas.

In February 1961, Royal Perth Hospital opened up an occupational therapy training school on its premises, before it merged with WAIT in 1969 to become the School of Occupational Therapy*.

“WAIT inclusion brought academic credibility and professional status that was lean in previous years. We felt we were part of a new, emerging health sciences community of practitioners,” Rodney says.

Marie Watts agrees. “The transfer of our course to WAIT was part of the many changes that were happening in our profession at the time. OT was becoming more clinical and evidence-based,” she explains.

“There was less emphasis on crafts and more on neurology, kinesiology and anatomy. We were in the midst of that change. This was both exciting and difficult as we were often put into conflict when on practical placement as the old and new ways collided.”

A black and white photograph of female teacher instructing a room full of students. The teacher points at the blackboard, which details information about how to assess a patient.

A later cohort of WAIT OT students learn how to assess a patient. Credit: Curtin Information Management and Archives

While the OT qualification had transferred to WAIT, classes were still held at various locations around Perth. Judy Gallagher recalls she and her classmates spent a lot of time traipsing across the city to attend lectures and labs.

“Anatomy was at the UWA anatomy labs, trades studies were at Leederville Technical College, physics, physiology and psychology were at WAIT, and the rest of our studies at the OT school, opposite Royal Perth Hospital.

“We lived a somewhat fragmented existence, spending lots of time on buses and in cars travelling from place to place.”

Rodney says it was this exclusion that made the group especially close and form the bond that exists today.

“It promoted a class identity and huge amount of loyalty. We largely made our own socio-cultural life.”

Glenys recalls that when they were at the WAIT campus, the place to be was the one coffee shop, (where “many short and long-term romances began”) and getting lost looking for lecture theatres was a common occurrence. The library was also a space to be reckoned with.

“It was a completely alien experience. I’d never seen anything so big,” she says.

“There was no internet – books had to be borrowed for assignments. Unless you were organised and borrowed a book early, you were left with no research material and had to beg your classmates to share books.”

The Curtin library in the 1970s was an imposing bare brick structure on a barren landscape.

The Curtin library in the 1970s cast an imposing presence. Credit: Curtin Information Management and Archives

The Curtin library surrounded by green trees and lush plants.

Lush and welcoming surrounds: the library today.

Though the students were undertaking a new course at the time, they say the teaching quality of their lecturers was exceptional, and they have only high praise for their knowledge and pedagogical instruction.

“I remember the first time that a new lecturer, Surya Shah, appeared in a class. He was a fascinating and committed OT who had joined the school from India,” Judy recalls.

“He was my first memory of evidence-based OT practice being used. He was an amazing mentor who provided a much-needed scientific basis for what we were learning.”

The course was soon recognised by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists, and still holds this recognition today. For Rodney, who grew up on a farm in Boyup Brook, the accreditation was a ticket to a global career. After he graduated from WAIT, he received a scholarship for a traineeship with the Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York.

“It was such a culture shock. I arrived in New York during a snow storm. It was bitterly cold, and I remember having so much trouble using the subway and being among so many people.”

Rodney persevered with his traineeship, but later moved to warmer climes to pursue further study in OT.

“In 1983, I was accepted into the PhD program at the University of California, and after graduating with a doctorate in public health, I spent the next 20 years working for a healthcare delivery system on the west coast of America.”

Closer to home, Marie embarked on career that saw her work with Silver Chain for eighteen years, including as Manager of Hospice Care Services. Judy’s career included lecturing at TAFE and working with school-aged children with intellectual disability for the Authority for Intellectually Handicapped Persons (now the Disability Services Commission).

Glenys worked at a public hospital in Perth, where she developed the first full-time OT home-visiting service. She also helped to establish a state-wide equipment program with Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. In this role she assisted patients with chronic conditions, such as motor neuron disease, to remain living at home.

“Motor neuron disease is a condition in which a person and their family are dealing with rapidly deteriorating function, mobility, role and lifestyle disruption. It is frightening and overwhelming for all concerned,” she says.

“Time was of the essence, as were the budgets I had to work within, to install equipment such as wheelchair ramps, and modify the home environment to accommodate manual and electric wheelchairs.

“I felt honoured to be a part of these people’s lives and contribute to making their remaining time more manageable.”

Glenys and her peers pursued diverse roles in OT, but they all look back on their time at WAIT as one that fortified their dedication for the profession.

“During many years of graduate studies, I never encountered anything close to the caring and mutual support possessed and practised by this remarkable group of individuals,” Rodney says.

“I owe them for their role in my journey from a raw farm boy to a (somewhat) sophisticated cosmopolitan man. This class is my ‘gateway’ group, my enablers.”

Between them, Rodney, Glenys, Judy and Marie have more than a century of experience in OT and allied health. At the reunion, they reflected on how the profession has changed.

“Being a good clinician is not enough any longer. I think OTs need to be much more policy and business savvy than in the past,” Judy says.

“They need to be able to adjust their service delivery to increasing financial restraints and an ageing population. Therapists need to be very aware of the way in which government policy impacts service provision. They need to be able to advocate for their clients, and for their own profession.”

If the next generation of OTs is anything like the one of 1969, the profession is in very capable hands.


*The school has since expanded and is now the School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology.

OT alumni who attended the 50th reunion, from left to right: Rodney Corker, Robin Gokavi (Gale), Marie Watts (Saw), Shirley Smythe (Sewell), Nicki Longmire (Brockway), Chris Kingsnorth (Miller), Ann Batini (Saunders), Jacquie Ryan (Boyle), June Mintz (Sheridan), Lois Denham (Koenig), Judy Gallagher (Jones), Ros Lewis (Hunt), Marg Dewar (Clarke), Shelley Smith, Judy Barndon (Readhead).

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