Early in Helen Erickson's nursing career, she discovered that her concept of nursing
care differed from the accepted practice. After many years of experience, education
and soul-searching, this led her to become one of the leading nursing theorists of
the 20th century. Her theories are very spiritual in nature and emphasize the holistic
care of patients.
Helen Lorraine Cook was born in 1936. She grew up as part of a middle-income family in a
small mid-western town where her parents taught her the value of hard work and goal setting.
Although she was a shy child, she was most content when she focused on others. A learning
experience that has guided her throughout her life occurred when she was very young. A
classmate told her that she was poor because she did not live in town, and her mother
made the clothes she wore. Her mother responded that where you live and what you wear
are not as important as how you act and how you think about yourself and others. Helen
said that this advice prepared her for nursing.
From the time she was a child, Helen knew she wanted to be a nurse. She could not explain
why, but she knew that it was her life's calling. Her sisters, dolls and animals were all
recipients of her "nursing" services, and she took courses in high school that were necessary
for admittance to a nursing school.
Helen graduated from the Saginaw General Hospital of Nursing with a diploma in 1957 and
married Lance Erikson that same year. Her father-in-law was psychiatrist, Milton Erickson,
who had a great influence on her later career. She said that he taught her that all people
live in a context and was a facilitator who allowed her to learn what she needed to know.
Education and Career
Helen learned early in her education that her view of nursing was not the same as
the established practice of the day. She had a spiritual view that encompassed caring
for the whole person, not just meeting physical needs. She recounted an experience
that happened about three months after she entered nursing school. A woman who was
close to death was comatose and constantly moaning. Only after Helen sat with her,
talking to her and stroking her hand did she become calm. She later peacefully transformed,
which is what Helen called death. As Helen developed her theory of nursing in her mind,
she found that other medical and nursing personnel did not accept her views.
After graduating from Saginaw General, she worked in the emergency room and as a medical-surgical
nurse. She quietly cared for her patients, giving them the benefit of her holistic way of
nursing. After her children were born, she worked part-time because she felt that nurturing
her family was the first priority.
However, a life-changing event occurred for Helen when her husband introduced her to
a colleague and his wife, Mary Ann Swain, who worked in the Research Center at the
University of Michigan. At that time, Helen worked as a staff nurse at the Health Science
Center. Mary Ann was intrigued by Helen's view of nursing and encouraged her to go back
to school so she could teach others. Since Helen believed that nursing was between her
and her patients rather than between her and her colleagues, she resisted the idea until
another life-changing event occurred. She felt that a patient was mistreated, and she
was powerless to do anything about it. That was when Helen, with the support of her
husband, decided to return to school so she would be able to express more adequately
what she knew to be true.
After she received her BSN from the University of Michigan in 1974, Helen realized
that this did not prepare her for what she needed to do, so she entered the master's
program. Realizing that the typical medical-surgical graduate nursing program would
not prepare her to develop her holistic theory, she convinced the chair of the psychiatric
nursing program to allow her to combine the two programs. While in that program, she met a
like-minded nurse, Evelyn Tomlin, who became her friend and later her co-author.
After completing her master's degree in 1976, Helen worked on a research team that studied
the effects of nursing models on the well-being of patients. Other members of the team
included Mary Ann Swain and Evelyn Tomlin. As interest began to grow in their concepts,
the women realized that a book needed to be written, and Helen knew that it was time to
record what she knew to be true about people and how that related to nursing. In 1983,
their book, Modeling and Role-Modeling: A Theory and Paradigm for Nurses, was
completed and published.
In 1984, Dr. Erickson earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of
Michigan. Throughout her years of clinical practice and education, she has never wavered
from her mission of nurturing growth in other people. She has been a defining force in
holistic nursing, teaching holistic nursing at the University of Michigan as well as the
University of South Carolina and the University of Texas at Austin. In 2012, the American
Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA) presented Dr. Erickson with the Holistic Nurse of the
Year (HNY) award at their annual conference, citing her for bringing healing and caring
to a primary place in nursing practice. Over the years, she has received numerous other
awards and honors for her lifetime of work. Upon her 1997 retirement from the University
of Texas at Austin, she was awarded Professor Emeritus and now spends her time writing
and supporting nursing research.
Dr. Helen C. Erickson is a visionary who changed nursing practice in a profound way for
those who would listen. Erickson's nursing theory takes nursing from a medical model to a
specialty unto itself.
Publications related to Helen Erickson
Dr. Erickson has an impressive list of writings and publications; many of these are in nursing journals, and many are research papers.