Obituary: Jean Blades née Waterston MBE, FCOT, occupational therapist

Jean Blades MBE FCOT: Pioneer of occupational therapy whose expertise improved thousands of lives
Jean Blades MBE FCOT: Pioneer of occupational therapy whose expertise improved thousands of lives
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Born: 24 March, 1921, in Edinburgh. Died: 28 December, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 93

Jean Blades was of one of our oldest pioneers in occupational therapy. She was also well known to many in Edinburgh and latterly in the village of Fala.

Jean was born and brought up in Edinburgh, the youngest of eight. Her father was chairman of Waterstons, the prestigious family printing and stationery firm. He was also a member of the board of governors of the Astley Ainslie Hospital (AAH) and had been much impressed by Amy de Brisay, a Canadian who had been sent to set up occupational therapy in the convalescent hospital in 1932.

This explains how Jean became involved in this unknown profession, but she never regretted being encouraged to pursue this career and became a most enthusiastic practitioner.

She was the last of the initial nine students who started their training at the newly established occupational therapy school at the AAH just before the Second World War. Jean was the youngest student and joined the second intake in 1938.

After completing her first year, the course was suspended with the outbreak of war, and Jean spent the next two years as an auxiliary nurse at the AAH. However, by 1941, the need for occupational therapy services was recognised and a contingent of eight Canadian occupational therapists volunteered to staff the Emergency Medical Hospitals throughout Scotland.

Arrangements were made for the students to complete their training under their supervision. Jean went to Stracathro Hospital, Angus, where she gained invaluable experience of the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen, many of whom had been rescued from the North Sea.

All her psychiatric training came from books but she completed her final examinations in 1944.

Jean loved children and was delighted when she was offered the newly created post at Princess Margaret Rose Hospital for Crippled Children. She also loved a challenge, but later wrote: “It was a daunting task to enter a high-powered rehabilitation staff of six physiotherapists and an equal number of teachers and try to establish a new concept… [but] gradually the hospital adjusted to the strange noises coming from its centre and to the sight of a polio child with only the use of one arm propelling herself along the corridor in a go cart made in the department.”

With the ending of the war in 1946, it was time to re-establish the Scottish Association of Occupational Therapists and Jean was appointed as secretary-treasurer, the beginning of a long association with the professional organisation.

The year 1951 was an exciting year for Jean. She joined the staff of the AAH; she published her first paper; and represented Scotland at the first conference of the Association of Occupational Therapists in London.

In August, she attended the conference of the International Society for the Welfare of Cripples in Stockholm and she was there when it was resolved that a World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) be formed.

In 1954, the first WFOT Congress was held in Edinburgh, and Jean, along with all the staff of the AAH, was totally involved in its organisation. Jean was particularly involved in the organisation of the study visits. At successive WFOT congresses, she presented papers in Copenhagen in 1958 and at the post-WFOT study course in New York in 1962.

While at AAH, Jean gained her teaching qualification and was instrumental in developing the programme at Tyne Lodge, where intensive rehabilitation was aimed at return to work. However, she was always concerned for these long-term patients who did not reach the goal in the time available.

Jean was someone who always liked a challenge and a project. She had great passion for the well-being of her, usually young and needy, patients and a desire to see occupational therapy not as an incidental discipline but a central one to the well-being of those with disabilities. Hence, the perfect job for her became available with the Edinburgh Cripple Aid Society (ECAS) which gave her the opportunity to initiate Simon Square Centre.

Jean felt confident in taking on this work as the National Assistance Act of 1948 had enabled the local authority to appoint ECAS as their agents to care for people with physical disabilities.

Jean developed a “work centre” (innovative for those days). The term was used advisedly. It was a rehabilitation centre for people with physical disabilities with regular input from NHS, education department and department of employment.

It enabled disabled people to develop a work ethic and learn skills which would help them to advance to sheltered or open employment and for those unable to progress a place of work where they could achieve to the best of their abilities.

A further development of her work for ECAS was the setting up of the domiciliary OT service – the start of an Aids to Daily Living service in Edinburgh. By 1978 this service had developed enormously and Lothian Region took over full responsibility for it. During this period Jean was invited to several international conferences to speak about her work.

Prior to opening the centre exploratory meetings had been held with various voluntary organisations. This led to the formation of The Edinburgh Committee for the Coordination of services for the Disabled (ECCOSED) of which Jean was secretary and the prime mover.

It was an active committee which looked at issues relating to accessibility, employment and welfare for disabled people, organised sports activities and held regular events to highlight the needs and abilities of disabled people. Jean continued this work with ECCOSED into retirement.

In 1976 she was awarded the MBE for her services to disabled people and in 1977 an honorary fellowship of the College of Occupational Therapists. She also got married.

When Jean took early retirement in 1985 Hester Monteath described her thus: “She is fun, laughter, energy, enthusiasm, compassion and very warm affection.”

She was also renowned for her ability to push herself and others to do good things even if it wasn’t exactly what one had in mind at that particular moment. She always believed you could, thought that you should and trusted that you would – and so we did.

Jean was just as enthusiastic about her leisure activities and enjoyed singing with both the Edinburgh Festival choir and the Edinburgh Choral Society of which she was made an honorary life member. She had a great influence on the village of Fala, south of Edinburgh, where she was a driving force in the Sunday school and played the organ at the church for more than 40 years, retiring at 87.

She co-founded Fala, Soutra and District History and Heritage Society and was an indefatigable campaigner for the importance of Soutra Aisle to be recognised and its surroundings to be protected from the wind turbines.

She co-wrote with her husband Fala and Soutra Past and Present and edited two other local history publications. Jean was secretary to the village hall committee and an active promoter of the village’s participation in Britain in Bloom and opening its gardens through the Scottish Gardens scheme.

If Jean wasn’t always in front leading the way her benevolent affirming, can-do, spirit was ever there.

Her faith was her inspiration, informing her life and enriching it – never more so when she married Daniel Blades, minister of Fala Church in 1977.

She was a true, compassionate person much appreciated and loved by all who came to know her.