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Nursing Theorists and the Nursing Practice

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

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