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Witsie pioneer leaves an indelible legacy


Distinguished alumna recently celebrated her 81st birthday and the occasion was a fitting time to reflect on her productive career.

Speaking from her retirement home in Johannesburg, Professor Rosemary Barncastle Crouch’s (BSc OT 1971, MSc OT 1984) voice is comforting and filled with optimism. Her links to the occupational therapy community networks keep her connected to the outside world providing a useful coping tool, she says, when asked how the coronavirus has impacted on her.

I have just received a newsletter from our most wonderful Occupational Therapy Africa Regional Group which I was very instrumental in setting up in 1999. The newsletter has a very interesting article on Occupational Therapy Mental Health Services during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

She explains that occupational therapy offers practical advice on how individuals can develop a sense of control, well-being and resilience during times of difficulty. It is a fine balancing act of practical advice (like scheduling specific activities to improve one’s mood and take breaks from media coverage about COVID-19) and reaching out to others (buddy systems to deal with cabin fever) which helps individuals frame their experience from a different perspective.Rosemary Crouch

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it,” she says.

This combination of the practical and theoretical seems to have been a guiding principle in the distinguished career of this Wits alumna. She has been an exemplary role model as academic and mentor for many occupational therapists in South Africa and several African countries such as Mauritius, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Over the years her dedication to the development of occupational therapy has been acknowledged with global accolades.

In 2010 she was acknowledged as Honorary Life fellow of the World Federation of Occupational Therapists and credited for her “special brand of positive energy to each task … her major contribution to these projects is her empowerment and affirmation of others ensuring success and sustainability, despite at times, daunting obstacles.”

Most recently she was awarded the Edward Leruli Award for Advocacy and a Merit Award for dedication to the profession by the Occupational Therapy Association of South Africa (OTASA) in October.

This follows her 2019 Merit Award from the Health Professional Council of South Africa in the Occupational Therapy, Medical Orthotics, Prosthetics and Arts Therapy category.

Her journey into occupational therapy started in 1957 at Wits Medical School, when the course and the profession was in its infancy.

“Nobody knew much about it but it was suggested to me by a career counsellor because I am artistic. I really liked the idea of some medical involvement too. I soon found out that it was just up my street and if I was given the chance I would study occupational therapy again. It has changed into a truly scientific and much sort after profession.  It is a fabulous and very flexible career,” she says almost 50 years later.

Soon after her first degree, she earned an MSc degree with distinction, becoming a senior lecturer at Wits. As a true Witsie4Life, her relationship with the university blossomed over the years. “Wits motivates me because it is one of the top universities in the country to promote research of the highest level. As a Mellon Mentor for eight years I was privileged to be involved with research candidates from different Health Sciences departments and to be involved in writing up of their research. What a privilege!”  

Her participatory style of teaching has been acknowledged “inspiring” by the Health Sciences faculty, particularly since it “promotes life-long learning which has positively influenced undergraduate and postgraduate occupational therapy students alike.”

In 1990 Professor Crouch left academia briefly to establish a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre with two social workers and a clinical psychologist. Three years later she opened her own practice in adult psychiatry, which ran until 2008. Her passion for psychiatry and occupational therapy emerged through her PhD research around this time which she obtained from Medunsa in 2003. She developed a validated community-based stress management tool, which advanced mental healthcare in under-resourced communities.

Her articles on stress management, group techniques and meeting the needs of education and research in Africa have stood the test of the time. Two publications “Occupational Therapy in Psychiatry and Mental Health” and “Occupational Therapy: An African perspective” have not only been used as prescribed texts, but the funds accrued from the 1st and 2nd editions formed capital for the Crouch Trust – now The Crouch Bursary Fund – which she set up with friend and colleague Vivyan Alers (MSc OT 2004). The royalties are a source of funding for research grants for occupational therapists in South Africa to conduct occupational therapy research in the field of psychiatry. 

Professor Crouch has effortlessly combined her professional life with her impressive footprint of volunteer work. This includes her involvement in the OTASA and establishing the respected Psychiatric Occupational Therapist’s Interest Group in 1985. She has held the highest office at the South African Federation for Mental Health, creating awareness of and appreciation for occupational therapy in mental health, and opening the new wing of ‘Little Eden’ and a Halfway House during her tenure. (She was made Honorary Life Member of this organisation in 1994). She generated funds with the South African National Council for Alcohol and Drug Dependence to open the first clinic in Soweto for the rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse in an old renovated aircraft hangar. She has also been on the committee of the Friends of Tara H Moross Centre and the Schizophrenia Foundation for many years.

In addition to all of this, Professor Crouch has somehow managed to raise a family of Witsies: “Because I was on the staff my children were encouraged to stay in Johannesburg where we live, and to go to Wits. My daughter Susan obtained a BSc Geology, Liza a BMus, and my grandson, James Shorten, an LLB. My husband Michael has a BSc Engineering and two of my son in-laws, BSc Mining Engineering and BCom and BAcc – all from Wits. Isn’t that marvellous? I am a true Witsie.”