Slagle, Eleanor Clarke (1871–1942)

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Slagle, Eleanor Clarke (1871–1942)

American leader in occupational therapy. Born Ella May Clarke on October 13, 1871, in Hobart, New York; died of a coronary thrombosis on September 18, 1942, in Philipse Manor, New York; daughter of John Clarke (a sheriff) and Emmaline J. (Davenport) Clarke; attended Claverack College in Columbia County, New York; married Robert E. Slagle (divorced); no children.

Born Ella May Clarke in 1871, the daughter of a former Civil War officer, Eleanor Slagle grew up in New York State. She attended Claverack College for a short time before moving to Chicago and marrying Robert E. Slagle, whom she later divorced. It was not until she was in her late 30s that Eleanor Slagle became involved in social welfare, caring for the mentally ill at Jane Addams ' Hull House in Chicago. In 1908, Slagle was among the first to take a course in "Invalid Occupation" at what would later become the school of social work at the University of Chicago.

Her interest in occupational therapy was greatly influenced by psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, who became the first director of the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In 1913, Meyer asked Slagle to organize the clinic's occupational therapy program. Her career took off quickly. By 1915, she was the director of Chicago's Henry B. Favill School of Occupations, which specialized in the training of occupational therapy aides.

In 1918, Slagle became the Illinois Department of Public Welfare's superintendent of occupational therapy. While serving in this position, she organized a therapy program for Illinois mental hospitals. She proved so successful in this task that she became director of occupational therapy for the New York State Hospital Commission four years later, and spent the rest of her career with the commission. Under Slagle's leadership, occupational therapy for the mentally ill at the state hospital level expanded greatly. She was responsible for increasing the number of therapy classes for patients, hiring higher qualified therapists, and originating ward classes and occupational centers. In ten years, her effective leadership had introduced nearly 70,000 patients in New York's state mental hospital system to occupational therapy programs. Slagle's accomplishments became the model for institutions throughout the United States, and her guidance was frequently sought in the development of similar programs across the nation.

Eleanor Slagle was active in improving the professional practice through the organization she helped found in 1917, the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy. Later renamed the American Occupational Therapy Association, it advocated minimum training standards and registration for occupational therapists. Slagle also envisioned the association as an informational contact for institutions desiring to set up occupational therapy programs. Besides holding prominent positions in professional occupational therapy associations, she also encouraged influential civic groups to help meet the rehabilitative needs of the mentally ill through therapy.

Having served as secretary, vice president, president, and finally executive secretary, Slagle retired from her post at the American Occupational Therapy Association in 1937. During her retirement dinner, Eleanor Roosevelt paid tribute to the renowned occupational therapist, and Slagle's old mentor, Dr. Adolph Meyer, referred to her as "the personification of occupational therapy." She died on September 18, 1942, in Philipse Manor, New York, having suffered from arteriosclerosis for the last ten years of her life.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Kimberly A. Burton , B.A, M.I.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan