Vernon Dutton (Twitter ~ Flickr) this morning sent me photos of Hildegarde Peplau’s yearbook, which he describes as a “lucky find”. I won’t pretend omniscience; I remembered her from school as a theorist who proposed a paradigm of nursing care, and that was about all. Callow youth: I didn’t pay enough attention. She was, of course, much more.
Hildegarde Peplau graduated from the Pottstown — a small city in Pennsylvania — Hospital School of Nursing in 1931. With some condescension, we now tend to think the middle years of the last century as the dark ages of nursing: think outlandish (to our eyes) caps, starched dresses, white hose and white patent-leather shoes — with heels! The vast majority of nurses were “hospital trained” in one or two years, i.e. as trainees, they lived on hospital grounds under a regimen second only to convents for rigidity and discipline, and their education, with a strong emphasis on practical nursing, was entirely within hospital walls.
From modest beginnings, however, Peplau went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and doctorate; she became a certified psychoanalyst and expert on psychiatric nursing. Her greatest achievement was the publication of her work, Interpersonal Relations in Nursing (1952), which established a firm theoretical basis for nursing practice, profoundly influenced the practice of generations of nurses to the present day, and made possible the establishment of nursing as a profession.* She held numerous chairs in nursing at universities around the world, acted as consultant to several agencies of the U.S. government, and was awarded eleven honorary degrees. Towards the end of her life, she said with some prescience:
Nursing has made great progress from being an occupation to becoming a profession in the 20th. Century. As the 21st Century approaches, further progress will be reported and recorded in Cyberspace — the Internet being one conduit for that. Linking nurses and their information and knowledge across borders — around the world — will surely advance the profession of nursing much more rapidly in the next century.
In looking over the photos from this long-lost age, we can scarcely sense the potentiality of these new graduates and of Peplau in particular. Friendly and eager faces, yes and kind, but not ones, you might think, who would run out of Pottstown, Pa. and change the world. But that is exactly what she did. Under Peplau’s picture, though, is the comment which just hints: “All she needs is a soapbox to make her arguments forceful.” When I reviewed her theories, dragging out an old textbook or two, I was quite surprised how much her work — consciously or not — has influenced my own practice and the way I look at nursing, that is, seeing nursing as a collaborative, learning process between the nurse and patient, in order to restore health, and how in this process nurses take on a multi-faceted roles.
We — nurses and patients — all owe her more than we know.
[Photos used with permission.]
*Incredibly, publication of her book was delayed four years because it was though inappropriate for a nurse to publish without having a physician as co-author.