Occupational Therapy New Zealand Whakaora Ngangahau Aotearoa

Hazel Skilton


Hazel passed away on 25 January 2015 aged 101 years.

HazelSkilton 100th

Hazel at her 100th birthday in January 2014

Occupational therapy loses founding member
Rene Stacy Skilton (nee Barton), known as Hazel Skilton, read about occupational therapy in the Reader’s Digest. Liking what she heard, and wanting to make a difference in people’s lives, she planned to go to America to train but was thwarted by the war. She was one of four of the first occupational therapists to be trained in New Zealand in 1940. She worked in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hamner Springs where several of the men had been repatriated from the WW2 battle on Crete, then transferred to Rotorua where she worked with return servicemen.

The experience of nursing one young airman remained with her, “there were times when his whole personality crumbled and he had to be carefully nursed until he recovered.”  As an early leader in occupational therapy Hazel recognised the need for a national organisation which in 1949 was established as the New Zealand registered Occupational Therapists Association Inc. It was Hazel’s casting vote that brought about the formation of the association.

She said the fundamental value of occupational therapy is that it gives hope. “I’ve seen people in hopeless conditions and occupational therapy helped them to take up their lives again.”

During the years 1950-58 Hazel held the dual positions of principal of The New Zealand Occupational Therapy Training School and supervising therapist of the Department of Health. Driven by her vision for high standards of education and practice, she used her positions to endorse formal registration and holds New Zealand registration number one (1955).

She was known for her service to others, strong mentoring, and inspirational leadership. At the time of NZAOT’s 60th anniversary (2009) Hazel was quoted as saying: “Never underestimate your influence on those you treat. You will be remembered as someone who has had an effect on their lives as you take a personal interest in them and as you give them the means to improve their health.”

Hazel’s intent was to create a community to share ideas and learning, and to gain visibility and publicity for the occupational therapy profession. Hazel herself printed the association’s monthly newsletters and fundraised to meet costs.  Hazel recalled association meetings held at the occupational therapy training school in the grounds of Auckland mental hospital, as it was then known. They met on Friday evenings after work. Hazel would bring her pressure cooker and they would all sit down to a shared meal.

Associates remember Hazel as a sincere person always rising to the occasion with thoughtful words and deeds that people responded to.  She held a strong curiosity and interest in people seeing the need for people to be occupied or participating in activities that provided meaning for them. Following her retirement in 1958 as principal of the occupational therapy training school she and her late husband, Norman, did voluntary work from a mission station in India. They adopted their son, George, while in India and Hazel showed her fighting spirit by tackling the racist New Zealand immigration laws to get her son into the country. Her intolerance of inequalities and compassion for others was further reflected in her sponsoring of refugees from Tibet.

Hazel was very involved in the Anglican Church and a life member of the Baden-Powell association. She was a poet and writer, publishing a number of books including “Work for Your Life”, in 1981 and her autobiography, “My First 85 Years” in 1999. On retirement Hazel and her husband built a yacht to sail the seas, Hazel undertaking classes in navigation so they wouldn’t get lost.

Hazel Skilton was a dynamic, inspirational, compassionate woman who will be greatly missed.