Nursing is a profession that has ties to the beginning of civilization. Caring for
other people has been a central aspect of societies since ancient times. As modern
nursing has evolved, so have theories and concepts about the underpinnings of nursing
care. The majority of nurses practice clinically for a period of time, but not all
remain on a clinical pathway for their entire careers. Some nurses choose to participate
in the more academic side of nursing by teaching and researching. Nurse theorists may come
from either career path, but are united in their desire to define and improve nursing care
around the world.
Modern nursing has its beginnings in the 19th century when formal nursing education started
to appear. Isabel Hampton Robb is known as the founder of modern nursing theory. She was
born in 1860 and began her nursing career after graduating from Bellevue Hospital Training
School for Nurses in 1883. After briefly practicing clinically, she was appointed Superintendent
of Nursing at the Cook County Hospital Nursing School in Chicago. It was there that she began to
implement the nursing education reforms that defined her career. These reforms, including use of
a grading policy for nursing students and requiring nursing students to prove competency prior to
graduation, are still in use today. She published several texts on nursing theory and education
that further shaped and guided nursing education. Due to her work, nurses are better prepared to
enter the work field as new graduate nurses.
Nursing as an academic study grew by leaps and bounds in the 20th century, leading
to a boom in nursing theories. One famous 20th century nurse theorist is Virginia
Henderson. She was born November 30, 1897 in Kansas City, Missouri, and died March
19, 1996. Her nursing career began when she graduated from the Army School of Nursing
at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. In her early career, she cared for patients
as part of a visiting nurse service. She returned to school at Columbia University
earning a bachelor and master's degree in nursing education. Her transition to academia
and subsequent nursing research led to her development of the Need Theory. The Need Theory
is designed to support patient independence. Henderson's nursing theory is still in use
today, particularly in rehabilitation settings.
The formation of nursing theories has continued with the evolution of the nursing profession.
One of the more recent nurse theorists is Dr. Jean Watson. Watson was born June 10, 1940
in Williamson, West Virginia. Her nursing career began after graduating from Lewis Gale
School of Nursing in 1961. She later went on to earn a bachelor's degree in 1964, a master's
degree in 1966 and a doctoral degree in 1973. Her research interests included human caring
and loss. Her theory, the Theory of Human Caring, was first published in 1988. Use of her
theory since it's publication has been extensive, with entire nursing program curricula
built around the Theory of Human Caring. In 2008, she founded the non-profit Watson Caring
Science Institute to further the science of caring around the world.
The majority of nursing theorists are women, but some famous nursing theories were
developed by men. This is likely to change in the future as gender barriers continue to
be broken. More and more men are becoming nurses, which will ultimately lead to more male
nurse theorists. One well-known male nurse theorist is Dr. Phil Barker. He co-authored the
Tidal Model nursing theory that is widely used in mental health nursing. Barker has over
40 years of experience in psychiatric nursing and as a practicing nurse psychotherapist.
He began his career as a nursing assistant on a temporary basis in order to pay off his
debts. Despite his original intentions, he eventually entered the mental health nursing
field and became one the United Kingdom's first nurse psychotherapists and first nurse
clinicians to earn a PhD. He later took a position at Newcastle University in England,
where his studies led to the development of the Tidal Model. He retired in 2008 to pursue
his love of painting.
Some nursing theories focus more on the experience of the nurse than of the patient. Dr.
Patricia Benner developed the concept, From Novice to Expert. From Novice to Expert
outlines the process by which a nurse progresses along the continuum of nursing knowledge
and experience. Benner was born May 10, 1955. She began her nursing career in 1964 after
receiving a bachelor's degree from Pasadena College. Her clinical experience includes time
spent in medical-surgical, emergency room, coronary care, intensive care and home care
nursing. She received a doctorate degree in 1982 and later became a tenured professor in
1989 in the Department of Physiological Nursing at the University of California, San
Francisco (UCSF). She is still currently a Professor Emerita at UCSF where her current
research interests include nursing ethics and nursing in intensive care.
Nursing theorists started their careers just like any other nurse, yet they had visionary
ideas for nurses and the nursing profession. From these humble beginnings, nurse theorists
have shaped and molded nursing into the profession it is today. Nursing continues to expand
its clinical and academic horizons, influencing new thoughts and ideas. With the continually
changing healthcare field, future nurse theorists will be challenged to develop new concepts
and theories to guide nurses in rendering expert patient care. Currently practicing nurses
can look to the works of these and other famous nurse theorists to build upon or conceptualize
new nursing theories in the future.
List of Nursing Theorists