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Jessie Luther worked with Grenfell

Pioneer occupational therapist

(December 2, 1999, Gazette)

Top: Jessie Luther
Below: Dr. Ron Rompkey

By Karen Shewbridge

From artist to craftsperson to pioneer occupational therapist, Jessie Luther had the talent and skills to change people’s lives. The Providence, Rhode Island, native worked with Wilfred Grenfell to change the lives of many of the people of coastal Labrador and northern Newfoundland. She also wrote a journal which captured the rhythm and flow of those lives during her time among them.

Dr. Ronald Rompkey has recently completed an annotated edition of that journal about Jessie Luther’s life and her work with Dr. Grenfell.
He said he didn’t choose Jessie Luther as his subject. She chose him.
“When I was working on the Grenfell biography back in the late ‘80s, I read an awful lot of documents, people’s letters and so forth. At that time Jessie Luther’s family in Massachusetts told me about this and told me I should have a look at it. In some cases it’s the only record we have of certain things going on in his (Grenfell’s) life from one person’s perspective. But as I was reading through this I thought this is interesting in and of itself.”

Jessie Luther grew up as an artist, studying in Europe, with the best artists of her time. She then turned to the new arts and crafts movement as a vehicle for her talents. Her life changed when, while recuperating from an illness, she discovered that crafts could benefit a person’s recovery.

“She embraced the idea,” said Dr. Rompkey, “that crafts could help psychiatric patients, and became one of the earliest pioneers of occupational therapy in the United States.”

Dr. Rompkey said that part of the appeal of Jessie Luther is her unique view of the Northern Peninsula and Labrador from an artist’s perspective.

“She was living in a very small community of only about 200 people on the north coast before electric lights or anything like that ... only two years after the agreement with the French government over giving up French fishing rights on the French Shore and giving a day-by-day account of what life was like.”

The journal was written between 1906 and 1910, when Ms. Luther taught arts and crafts, particularly weaving and rug hooking, to local people. She began the hooked mat industry when she discovered local women making mats with basic geometric and floral patterns.

Ms. Luther decided to teach new designs based on those she knew were selling in New England and then sold them to American markets. The designs had a plain centre and a border showing local images such as seals, walruses, deer, rabbits and other animals, as well as people in winter dress.

“She was a very outdoor woman. She lived to the age of 92, did a lot of hiking, outdoor painting, that sort of thing. So visually and physically she loved the Newfoundland and Labrador coast. During that time of her life I think she found it pretty exciting having a whole small industry that she was really running herself,” said Dr. Rompkey.

He said at that time Ms. Luther was happy with her life in Labrador and the positive effect the crafts were having on people. She saw it fulfilling its purpose, which was to give fishermen’s wives a way of working out of the home and at the same time introducing a cash flow.

Dr. Rompkey said it became obvious while reading the journal that Ms. Luther’s feelings of satisfaction and contentment deserted her about the time that a Mrs. Grenfell arrived on the scene and took over the crafts industry.

“Grenfell was no longer a single man, and I think she was rather interested in him. The other thing is that she was out there because she was on leave from the Butler Hospital in Providence, and she eventually had to go back to the United States.”

Dr. Rompkey believes part of the charm of Jessie Luther’s accounts of her experiences in St. Anthony and in Labrador comes not only from her artist’s eye, but also from her identity as a woman.

“This is a woman’s journal. So often travel journals in the north are written by men. They’re adventurers, they’re travellers, they’re hunters, missionaries and clergymen. You don’t very often get women (like Susanna Moody), so it’s a woman’s point of view. She’s interested in such things as what people are going to eat next, how they will be cared for, what is to be done about the orphanage children, what is happening with education, those sorts of issues.”

Dr. Rompkey said Ms. Luther sometimes had to worry about things like where the next meal was going to come from at the St. Anthony hospital, especially since there was an orphanage next door, with 10 children in it. She was called upon to do a little bit of everything, whether making clothes, cooking for the staff, or even assisting at operations in the hospital.

Mr. Rompkey said Ms. Luther had a different perspective and a more complete picture of everyday life because she was involved and interested in those sorts of issues. This made her journal quite different from that of a man such as Grenfell himself who might be interested in recounting tales of adventure.

The journal of Jessie Luther is expected to be published in the fall of next year.