Nursing legend Luther Christman, PhD, RN, FAAN, 96, died 7 June 2011 of pneumonia at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. He was an outspoken advocate for nursing and patient-centered nursing care and fought to end discrimination against men and other minorities in nursing.
Christman was an active member of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI). He received the honor society’s first Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award in 1991 and the Edith Moore Copeland Founders Award for Creativity in 1981.
Christman retired in 1987 as dean emeritus of Rush University College of Nursing. He was appointed the first dean of the college in 1972 and served a dual role as vice president for nursing affairs at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. During his tenure, he developed and implemented the Rush Model for Nursing. A key component of the model was his belief that nursing faculty should also be expert clinical nurses. Under his leadership, nursing professors spent two-thirds of their time in practice and were reimbursed for the practice in the same way as medical faculty (Sullivan, 2002).
He envisioned nurses as knowledge workers and full partners in patient delivery (Houser & Player, 2004). He also advocated for primary nursing, in which a primary nurse is responsible for coordinating all aspects of a patient’s care.
Visionary ideas for nursing education
Before his nursing career took him to Rush, Christman served as dean of Vanderbilt School of Nursing and director of nursing at Vanderbilt Medical Center. When he was appointed dean in 1967, he became the first male dean of a U.S. school of nursing.
At Vanderbilt, he proposed a unification model that would integrate the education of graduate nursing students and medical students. He later suggested expanding the model into the clinical setting. That proposal laid the foundation for advanced practice nursing (Houser & Player, 2004).
A visionary and innovative leader, Christman pushed to improve educational standards for nursing. He advocated for the baccalaureate degree as the minimum entry level into nursing. He supported advanced degrees for nurses, including a clinical master’s degree, a clinical doctorate and a combined Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Nursing Science degree.
In their profile of Luther Christman in Pivotal Moments in Nursing: Leaders Who Changed the Path of a Profession, Beth Houser and Kathy Player (2004) describe him as a passionate nurse with an inability to keep his viewpoints to himself:
With a characteristic twinkle in his eye, he is a man ready to battle wits with anyone willing to engage him in a conversation about the future of the profession. Whether speaking individually or to a room filled with nurses, Luther enjoys “dropping bombs” during speaking engagements just to see who is up for the challenge of a hearty discussion.
In a 1998 article in Image: Journal of Nursing Scholarship, he stirred up controversy by stating that for nurses to improve their image, a Doctor of Nursing degree (ND) should be required for practice. That idea generated an outpouring of responses from readers—most of whom disagreed with his view.
“Those who think big, do big things,” Christman (1998) wrote in the article. “Everything is difficult when it is not done. But everything is easy when it is done in service to mankind.”
A man in a woman’s world
Christman “stumbled into” a nursing career as a result of economic hardship during the Great Depression. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for Men. A major incentive for his decision was that the hospital paid all expenses for his education. Plus, he could be near his future wife, Dorothy Black, who had enrolled in a Philadelphia nursing school (Houser & Player, 2004). He graduated in 1939 with a diploma in nursing.
Houser and Player recount several occasions in which Christman faced gender discrimination. When he applied to baccalaureate nursing programs, two schools rejected him because he was a man. He was later admitted to Temple University School of Nursing but was not allowed to participate in the obstetrical rotation.
When Christman tried to enlist in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II, he was denied because of his gender. He fought the decision by contacting military officials and government representatives, but his efforts were unsuccessful. He served his country as a pharmacist’s mate for the U.S. Maritime Service from 1943-1945, but “he remained disturbed by his rejection by the U.S. military services. … It was not until the 1960s and the Vietnam War that men were allowed into the nursing corps” (Houser & Player, 2004, pp. 72, 74).
In 2002, Eleanor Sullivan, PhD, RN, FAAN, past president of STTI, profiled Christman in Reflections on Nursing Leadership. She described the barriers he faced as a man in nursing:
If he wrote a tell-all book, many nurses would be embarrassed by the blatant sexism he experienced. Without naming names and without rancor, Luther Christman tells story after story of the ways that women in nursing blocked his path to becoming a nurse and later tried to prevent his moving ahead with progressive ideas. … In spite of such experiences, Christman went on to become one of the most honored nurses in the history of nursing around the world.
Christman supported affirmative action to recruit more men to the nursing profession. More men would help prevent nursing shortages, he said, because men are more likely to work full time with no breaks in their career, while women may interrupt their career because of child-rearing responsibilities (Sullivan, 2002). To provide support for men in nursing, Christman helped found the National Male Nurse Association in 1974, which became the American Assembly for Men in Nursing in 1981.
He also fought for the rights of other minorities. He was the first to hire African-American women as faculty members while serving as dean at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.
In addition to his awards from STTI, Christman was named a Living Legend by the American Academy of Nursing, the organization’s highest honor. The American Nurses Association and the American Assembly for Men in Nursing both established awards in his honor. He was awarded three honorary degrees and was a member of the Institute of Medicine and National Academies of Science.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing science and a master’s in clinical psychology from Temple University and a doctorate in sociology and anthropology from Michigan State University. He was a distinguished international speaker and the author of many scholarly articles and books on nursing education, patient care and health care. Two doctoral dissertations have been written on Christman’s contributions to nursing and his future visions for the profession (Houser & Player, 2004).
Luther Christman, son of a coal miner, broke through the barriers he faced as a man in a woman’s profession to become one of the world’s most honored nurses. Many of his proposals that were once considered extreme, such as graduate degrees for clinicians, are now widely accepted in nursing. He’s been called an icon, a visionary, a genius and a trailblazer—often controversial and provocative, but always an advocate for nursing.
“Luther Christman has numerous legacies he has left to nursing, but his most powerful ones have been his strong, passionate campaign for increasing the standards of the profession and for opening the door of the profession to minorities. As a result of his platform, he has left the profession a better place for others. What more could one individual ask from a lifetime career?” (Houser & Player, 2004) RNL
—Jane Palmer, assistant editor, Reflections on Nursing Leadership
Christman, L. (1998). Who is a nurse? Image: Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 30(3), 211-214.
Houser, B.P., & Player, K.N. (2004). Pivotal moments in nursing: Leaders who changed the path of a profession. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International.
Sullivan, E. (2002). In a woman’s world. Reflections on Nursing Leadership, 28(3), 10-17.