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Upward Mobility

May 8, 1967


The story of nursing at the University of Kansas Medical Center is one of continual striving for excellence and recognition for itself and its students.

Beginning in 1906 as a non-academic diploma program, it evolved a baccalaureate track by 1929, ended the three-year diploma plan after 1951, and gained permanent academic accreditation in 1959. The next big step took place on May 8, 1967, when KU Nursing gained approval of the University’s Graduate School to begin offering a master’s in nursing degree starting with the fall 1968 semester.

Achieving the establishment of a graduate program in nursing proved to be a challenging task. Because of both the public and academic perception of Nursing as a vocational rather than a professional career choice, few outside of the nursing field itself envisioned the possibility or usefulness of graduate study. Indeed, there was a time when not that many nurses themselves saw the wisdom of taking advanced coursework.

However, as the undergraduate Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program gained prestige following the phasing out of the diploma track after 1951, some nurses and many medical professionals began to see value in employing nurses with advanced degrees and preparation.

Because the contemplated graduate program had to be built with existing faculty, the initial request to the Graduate School was to establish a Master of Nursing degree (MN). In his letter granting approval of the plan, W. P. Albright, dean of the University of Kansas Graduate School, held out a future possibility as well. He noted that this action did not preclude the establishment of a Master of Science degree in Nursing “…after the program has been in operation long enough for the Department to demonstrate a suitable research-component pattern.”

The rationale for creating a graduate program in nursing was based on several factors. In the first place, the Kansas State Board of Nursing “was pushing to have a master’s program in the state,” as Rita Clifford, associate dean of the KU School of Nursing, noted in a 2006 interview. “Several diploma schools were still operating in Kansas at the time and not many offered even a bachelor’s degree in nursing, so KU was the obvious place to start the MN.” Additionally, Clifford pointed out, the master’s degree was becoming a factor in nursing education elsewhere in the United States, and KU wanted to acquire similar equal academic standing.”

The two Nursing administrators most credited with developing support and planning for the graduate program were Martha Pitel, who served as department chair from 1964-71, and long-time Nursing faculty member Margery Duffy, then serving as director of undergraduate nursing. Both Pitel and Duffy were among the first KU Nursing faculty members to have earned doctoral degrees.

When the KU Medical Center Bulletin announced creation of the nursing graduate program in its August 1967 issue, it noted that as recently as 1955, “…only one practicing nurse in Kansas [held] a degree beyond the baccalaureate level.” Initial faculty for the graduate courses included Pitel, Duffy, and Juanita Murphy, another PhD who also served as co-director of the graduate level Nurse Scientist program at KU’s Lawrence campus. For the specific area of psychiatric nursing, Carmelita Smith, MS, had special training in the field to provide much of the actual instruction.

The choice to focus on psychiatric nursing in the first master’s program was “a natural,” according to Clifford in her 2006 interview, since this specialization “was always the leader in advanced education in nursing both at KU and across the country. Additionally, we had faculty with experience in psychiatric nursing and proven teaching models from which we could draw.” In 1968, the first year of admissions, five students enrolled in this initial psychiatric nursing program in the master’s of nursing curriculum.

Starting in fall 1970, the KU Nursing master’s program accepted students in four areas of specialty: mental health, which was a reworking of the psychiatric nursing emphasis; mother-and-child nursing; community health nursing; and adult nursing. This expansion of the program gave graduate nurses more options for study in fields that held a demand for more skilled and educated nurses.

The Master’s degree program grew from the small initial class of five in 1968 to a total of 198 registered degree-seeking graduate students by 1982. Part of this increase came from the offering of a graduate outreach program beginning in 1973. Stimulated by a federal grant, the plan involved taking graduate level instruction to baccalaureate degree holding nurses across the state. While some courses were held in short time periods at the Kansas City campus, most instruction and work was done in off-site locations elsewhere in the state. The first student to complete the program was Jeanne Currey of Sublette, Kansas, in 1978.

For the next decade, KU continued offering this Master of Nursing degree. But in 1989, following a review of the entire nursing graduate program, the decision was made to drop the MN and replace it with an MS in Nursing. The rationale for this change was based on the finding that few other universities offered the MN option, as well as the fact that by this time, a strong core of the KU Nursing faculty held one or more advanced degrees.

The road to establishing a permanent KU Nursing doctoral program proved equally complex. Technically, the opportunity for nurses to gain the PhD degree in other fields at KU actually predated the establishment of the MN program. This early initiative – known as the Nurse Scientist program – began in 1965 on KU’s Lawrence campus and was staffed in part by KU Nursing faculty, especially Juanita Murphy. The Nurse Scientist program was fully funded by a federal grant. This total reliance on soft money led to the program’s demise in the mid-1970s when the funding expired.

At this time, as Hester Thurston, former Nursing School dean, reported, “of the original 28 [applicants], seven withdrew from the program, but a total of 21 nurses completed the PhD degree in various disciplines at Lawrence.” For instance, KU Nursing graduate Anita Wingate entered the Nurse Scientist program and was awarded the PhD in Anatomy in 1972. She then became a full faculty member on the Kansas City campus, and as of 2006 was serving as assistant dean and associate professor.

These happy endings aside, the withdrawal of federal funding for the Nurse Scientist program pointed out some of the difficulties KU faced in putting in place a permanent Nursing PhD course of study. Some of the obstacles were clearly delineated in an internal memo from Thurston, then acting chair of Nursing, in early 1972 after she learned that funding for the Nurse Scientist program would not be renewed.

“According to the grapevine,” observed Thurston, “one of the reasons for giving terminal support rather than continuation was the lack of doctorally prepared faculty at KU. It becomes increasingly difficult to find such people, much less attract them to the Midwest at competitive salaries. I agree that we must have the PhD nurse with clinical orientation to nursing if we are to develop a first rate masters program in nursing. A second grapevine indication was lack of administrative support to nursing. While I believe this to be a myth, somehow it will be necessary for us to demonstrate that this is indeed the case (a myth).” The designation of the Department of Nursing Education as the School of Nursing in 1974 became an appropriate response to the second concern.

This entire exchange placed Thurston in a difficult situation. She then served as acting chair of the department, but did not hold a PhD herself. Ultimately she became the first dean of the School of Nursing in 1974 but held the position only until Dr. Doris Geitgey assumed the deanship in 1975. (Thurston would remain at KU as director of continuing nursing education until her retirement in 1987.)

The inauguration of a full-fledged doctoral program in Nursing within the School of Nursing gained approval in 1982 with the first enrollments registered in the fall of 1983. Since that time, great effort has been expended to increase the number of nursing faculty holding the terminal degree in all the teaching and research fields offered. Observers from the onsite evaluation team of the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education noted that in 2002, “more than 63 percent (36) of full-time faculty possess a doctoral degree, and another six percent are actively engaged in doctoral study.” All remaining full-time faculty held at least a master’s degree.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the University of Kansas School of Nursing offers a wide variety of options for graduate education in the field. Applicants for the MS degree can choose from clinical nurse specialist, healthcare informatics, nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner, organizational leadership [which can be combined with an MS program in Health Services Administration], and public health nursing. Both the health informatics and the public health nursing tracks first became available in their present form in 2003.

The doctoral program became only the 24th such program in the United States when it was established in 1983. It is intended as a capstone degree for nursing professionals who intend to teach or administer nursing schools in Kansas and across the nation.

According to the current website description, the PhD program has four purposes: “…to prepare graduates to function in faculty positions in college and university settings; to conduct independent research and scholarly endeavors in nursing; to generate and expand theoretical, empirical, and philosophical bases for nursing practice; and to provide leadership to the profession and interpret nursing to society.” Coursework is offered in traditional classroom settings on the Kansas City campus and online.

Graduate education in the University of Kansas School of Nursing is a relatively recent addition to the curriculum, but preparations for it go back to the 1950s. These efforts came to fruition in 1967 with approval of the Master’s degree initial offerings and in 1982 with approval of the permanent PhD program. With the graduate offerings in place, the School of Nursing indeed serves as the most comprehensive nursing education institution within the state of Kansas and a leader in the field across the nation.

William S. Worley
Adjunct Professor of History
University of Missouri-Kansas City

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Correspondence and communications within the archives of the University of Kansas Medical Center including communications in the files of Hester Thurston, 2004 historical interview with Rita Clifford, Helen R. Connors Ph.D., R.N., “A Rural Health Practitioner Shortage. What Can Be Done?” Kansas Connections, Summer 1993; University of Kansas Medical Center Bulletin, August 1967; Hester Thurston, “The Kansas University School of Nursing: An Historical Perspective,” presented at the Nursing Perspectives Workshop, May 15, 1982; and the School of Nursing website, http://www2.kumc.edu/son/].