Cecilie Bearup’s smile: the Mona Lisa of occupational therapy

How was I an OT today? 4


How do we learn? How do we know things? I am still in my first week of ‘the new job’ and there is much sifting to be done about the information that is relevant and that which will be lost. There are particular things that strike me as good omens. Someone draws me into the tearoom and makes a point of saying what a great place this is to work; the property services person is ready to talk philosophy and politics;

What am I downloading? The word ‘downloading’ seems to come from the computer industry. It suggests that a new program is being downloaded, which I will then run. The metaphor is used also by people who meditate, who are referring to a way of knowing without borders. It suggests that an understanding of culture and dynamics will come essentially unbidden. The ‘knowing how to go on’ will come from myriad small clues. But it is about learning the culture, and understanding where this institution is headed. I have done some careful unpacking of my first impressions of previous jobs. I know that leadership, values and intentions are so important.

We went out for lunch to celebrate my first week and someone jokes that this is like my interview. Of course it is. And of course I am more worried than at the actual interview. The knowing goes both ways. You bring someone new into a team and the story is going to change. Arendt describes it as a group of people sitting around a table, and the table holds them together. If you take the table away, there is no story. The table that we are sitting around is the profession of occupational therapy. But there are many physical tables we sit around along the way. We talked about the tea table and how the importance of this has diminished through COVID times. Everyone has retreated to eat at their desks and there is a feeling of loss. It takes a strong personality to bring us around a meal table, and it does not feel altogether comfortable.

Around this table we talk about being awestruck by being in the presence of people who have been formative in the profession. There is history in an ‘academic unit’ that has being going for 50 years. I always wonder about the dynamic gets set up with the original intention of a place which then reverberates through the generations. Cecilie Bearup established the initial UniSA program at what was then the South Australian Institute of Technology. So when I was arriving to start the new program at the University of Adelaide in January 2021, it was the 50 year anniversary of the program at UniSA.

I wonder about this person. Why was Cecilie such a traveler? Why did she study in London, then work in Canada and America before coming to Adelaide? I feel lucky enough to have arrived at a time when the ‘academic unit’ is still close to being housed in the same building that it started in. So in my initial tour of the building I could see where the industry workshop used to be, and where Cecilie’s office used to be. I can see the noticeboard with scrappy old fashioned photos of here. And I wonder what her capacity for intention? I wonder whether it really matters. Are stories shaped forever by the shape of their founders?

The photos on display show her accepting an award, with a very self conscious air of humble brag. I think that it is a look that I may spend the next few years trying to unpack. It is not a fashionable look now, and I can’t imagine a doctor accepting an award in this way. It must have been virtue signaling of the first order, the upstart profession finding its way into the hierarchy. She was a person who knew her place, but was extremely proud of what that was. There is so much that can be told in a look.

She was already in Adelaide in the 1960s and very much taking part in the beginnings of de-institutionalisation, which felt like the revolution had come. There has been nothing like it until our time and NDIS. Therapists were able to see that they could do something on the right side of history in moving out of the institution. And she could then identify the dangers when they moved into hostels and there was ‘nothing people could do. They weren’t allowed in the kitchen, there was nothing for them.’ Chittleborough (1998) was surely paraphrasing Cecilie or Wilcock when she say in her student thesis that ‘Occupational therapy supported the process of change that was occurring’. We have no choice but to be happy to embrace every policy change that sweeps people with disability into the next moment of history.

Sometimes these historical and ideological sweeps need a historical perspective in order to ask the question about how and whether they actually benefit people with disability. There is an honest comment from one of the other participants in Chittleborough’s thesis about following a client over many years and not being convinced by whether she had made a difference.

• ..By the time I knew her she was four – a huge smile and very little brain… Years later I met her at Julia Farr she was a young woman in her mid thirties by then. She remembered me… she didn’t have anything, she couldn’t give anything, she couldn’t really take anything. She was fed, she was comfortable, but all those years our intervention hadn’t actually done anything for her at all. She was bigger but that was all.”

Something that is no longer the same are the industrial therapy programs, established in 1964 in conjunction with South Australia’s Aid to the Mentally Ill, which aimed ‘to develop in institutionalised patients work and personal habits.’ Eventually the industrial therapy programs would be seen as retro, but before that happened there was a workshop established in the UniSA in the basement of the Bonython Jubilee building.

“Early industrial therapy programs provided contract work for longstay and often mentally retarded patients who used to break up all the meter boxes for ETSA and discard them into various metal components and we were able to sell them for great profit. Well most of those patients could use a hammer or a screwdriver or something to take something apart but they couldn’t have produced anything that was dainty and wrapped in tissue paper and was going to look attractive for someone to buy on a shop counter.” (Chittleborough, p. 19)

Cecilie was a pioneer. She started things. There was a patient library funded by the women’s auxilliary, and she was part of starting the South Australian Association of Occupational Therapists (Bearup, 1980). There was such huge energy, doing home visits on the weekend. Taking Thursday afternoons off, because Saturday was better to implement recreational programs. There was also the frustration and the pushing for power and trying to get a leg into the medical hierarchy.

“…did resolve itself because we did get a lot of support from the medical superintendent. And he was not fully aware of our role to start with but he did eventually, come to understand it, and for quite some time was the actual chairperson of the OT association. We could go to him with problems and he did eventually realise that there was to be a hierarchy, with the OT’s in charge, and then the other people [handicraft instructors]. . . in attendant roles” (p. 24)

Cecilie is the educator by the time these interviews were done, and she has phrases “humanely reinstating work and personal habits’ that feel as though they have been practiced. There was nothing humble about this woman. She had a sense that occupational therapy was going to change the world, and she knew that she was part of history when she made all the pioneering starts.

Celie getting prize

Note: The OT program started at Glenside and spent a year there before moving to the current campus. It seem to have moved into the current Bonython Jubilee building after a couple of years.


Bearup, C. July 1980, ‘The South Australian Association of Occupational Therapists – Historical background and the formative years, 1963-1970’. Dissertation in Social Administration, Flinders University, South Australia.

Bearup, C. (1982). 1982 Sylvia Docker Lecture. Occupational Therapists must be facilitators not inhibitors of action. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal 29 , (2) 49-58.

Bearup, C. (1996). Occupational therapists in wartime. Adelaide: Australian Association of Occupational Therapists, South Australia Inc.

Bearup, C. (1996a). ‘Silver Jubilee Lecture’. Conference proceedings. Australian Association of Occupational Therapists, South Australia, Inc.

Chittleborough, C (and Ann Wilcock), 1998, An exploration of occupational therapy in South Australia from 1958 to 1970: an oral history. “The Way it was”. 35 page thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Health Science in Occupational Therapy