Alumni Profile

Florence Clark Ph.D. '82

Occupational Pioneer Florence Clark is well aware that the field of occupational therapy has traditionally evoked images

of helping survivors of catastrophic illness or disability rebuild their lives. But Clark, who earned her Ph.D. from USC’s School of Education in 1982, also knows that that image is too restricted. The professor and chair of the USC Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy department has not only played a major role in the field’s growth, but also in the creation of a new discipline — the “science” part of the department’s name — to go with it.
“As a health profession today, occupational therapy focuses on the goal of helping people experience healthy and satisfying lives by maximizing their ability to successfully accomplish meaningful everyday activities — activities that we term ‘occupations,’ ” Clark explains. “Now that advances in medical care can help people live longer, occupational therapists can show people how to live better.”

Designers of the Well Elderly Study: Clark (right) with research team members (from left) Ruth Zemke, Jeanne Jackson and Deborah Mandel.

WHAT SHE CALLS “preventive” occupational therapy has a significant impact on the elderly, according to research conducted by Clark and her colleagues. The Well Elderly Study, the largest study ever conducted in the field — funded by the National Institutes of Health and completed at USC — indicates that preventive occupational therapy can improve seniors’ physical and mental health.
The landmark study appeared as the lead story in a special geriatrics section of the Oct. 22-29, 1997, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association and garnered worldwide press coverage. It was the first time an occupational therapy study has been published by the well-known medical journal. Clark was the study’s lead author.
The Well Elderly Study was based on fresh insights from occupational science, the field of inquiry spearheaded by Clark. The budding academic discipline was founded at USC in 1989, when the department became the first in the world to offer a doctoral degree in the field. She defines it as “a social science that deals with the form, the function and the meaning of human occupation.”
It has continued to be a banner year for Clark’s department: the U.S. News & World Report annual guide to “America’s Best Graduate Schools” recently ranked it No. 1 in the nation. Out of the highest possible score of 5.0, USC received a score of 4.9, followed by Boston University with 4.6.
“While we had a strong sense that we were doing excellent work we didn’t really know that this excellence had been perceived throughout the country,” says Clark. “It was gratifying to see that our achievements had been noticed by our peers.”





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