World War I had just ended.
Throughout the war, reconstruction aides, the predecessors to modern physical therapists, worked tirelessly to do their part, treating the many casualties of war and getting soldiers back on their feet. These strong women had proven their value as medical professionals – war heroes – and shown that those who would eventually be known as physical therapists had a major role to play in the future of America’s health.
Once the war was over the reconstruction aide program at Walter Reed General Hospital was to be dismantled. Mary McMillan and her colleagues wanted to build on the momentum of the war, preserve the resources that had been developed, and ensure that the core group of people was maintained. To do that, they formed the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association. (AWPTA). But, the new organization would need leadership; people with vision and knowledge of the profession.
McMillan and her committee sent letters to 800 candidates both military and nonmilitary. Those who wished to become a part of this newly formed organization were asked to submit annual dues of $2 and complete a primary ballot to nominate a president, two vice presidents, a treasurer, and two members-at-large to form an executive committee. The group received 120 enthusiastic responses. The nominations were tabulated, and a formal ballot drawn up. In February 1921 it was sent out to all dues-paying members.
The final ballots were counted on March 24, 1921, and Mary McMillan was elected to serve as the first president of this fledgling society of women who all were accomplished leaders of their profession. No one was surprised but McMillan herself. In her inaugural message to the organization, McMillan promised to do everything in her power “to live up to the trust and confidence” bestowed upon her by those who elected her. That year membership stood at 274 from 32 states.