Groundbreaker’s Work in Occupational Science Established Discipline’s Credibility

Not many people can lay claim to being a key player in the development of a scholarly discipline. Florence Clark, PhD, OTR/L ’70, FAOTA, can.

lorence Clark, PhD, OTR/L.

Florence Clark

Clark is professor emeritus of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of Southern California and a noted expert in occupational therapy (OT) and aging. From her time at the University at Buffalo’s OT master’s program, to her influential “Well Elderly Studies,” to her role securing occupational science as a viable discipline, Clark has been a groundbreaker.

Perhaps her circuitous route to a career in OT was the first instance of her mold-breaking ways. Clark had been an arts-oriented student, majoring in English and drama as an undergrad at the University at Albany. But when she graduated during the societal upheaval of 1968, a service career seemed more appropriate. She discovered OT would allow her to use her background in drama and writing because, at the time, OT was well represented in psychiatric hospitals, where therapists engaged patients in creative pursuits.

“Since its inception,” Clark explained, “OT has been based in creative and meaningful activities for people with physical or mental disabilities. ‘Occupation’ was the generic definition—what you occupied your time doing, which, ideally, should be health-promoting.”

Clark enrolled in UB’s brand-new OT master’s program and was one of the first in the country to get the degree. She laughed when she recalled her time at UB: “I was a misfit because I expected a conceptual education with a theoretical knowledge base. But I entered a field that was very practical.”

Once Clark found a mentor in one of her fieldwork supervisors, she felt “challenged. At graduation, I received the award for the best master’s student in clinical fieldwork.”

Clark’s path took her in a research-based direction. She built a large OT department as the director within a state school in Pennsylvania and started research with people with disabilities based on a therapy that helps people with sensory processing issues by providing individually tailored opportunities for sensory stimulation.

When she eventually made her way to the University of Southern California, she joined the faculty and stayed for 41 years, gaining her doctorate in psychometrics and special education and ultimately becoming associate dean of the Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. She also furthered her forays into research; by 1993, she received her first grant from the National Institute of Aging/National Institutes of Health, one of the first three OT researchers to have secured such funding.

In 1994, Clark had begun the work of which she is most proud: the USC Well Elderly Studies. The first study made notable contributions to research on OT and its effect on the aging population. The largest outcomes research study conducted in the field to date, the results were published in October 1997—the first OT study to appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In the follow-up Well Elderly 2 study, Clark and her fellow OT researchers at USC found that small, healthy lifestyle changes—coupled with involvement in meaningful activities—are critical to healthy aging.

“The research was ahead of its time in looking at wellness and establishing OT as relevant to the well-elderly population,” Clark said. “We found that non-medication-based interventions could prevent disease.”

The idea of “Lifestyle Redesign” was a key component of the findings.

“Putting together a daily round of customary activities would be life-promoting,” she said. “This was way before Peloton!”

Clark’s science was one of the key prompts of the notion that occupational science was a credible discipline.

“Previously,” she explained, “people wondered if OT really needed a discipline. But unless OT had a scientific base, it would just be a technical field and unable to progress.”

Clark put occupational science’s stake in the ground during her Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture, a renowned forum of the American Occupational Therapy Association named for a pioneer of the OT profession.

“The lecture secured the viability of occupational science as a discipline,” she said. “Now, 30 years later, it’s completely viable and well established.”

For Clark, the essence of her career comes down to practice, to the people with whom she has worked, counseled and supported as an OT, and seeing the changes in their lives.

“You do research not to be glorified as a researcher but to contribute to the well-being of others,” she said. “You’re on the side of good and making a positive contribution.”