Reflecting on our beginnings

Patricia E. Thompson | 04/07/2014

IU School of Nursing marks 100 years; history linked with that of STTI.

Patricia Thompson author imageThis year marks the 100th anniversary of Indiana University School of Nursing (IUSON), where Alpha Chapter, the first chapter of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), was established. I would like to pay tribute to IUSON, not only for its longevity and many successes over the past century, but for giving us the six visionary nurses who founded the honor society. These nurses were among the “Top 100 Alumni Legacy Leaders” honored this month at the school’s centennial celebrations. Also included were two other IU alumnae with links to STTI: Nell J. Watts, past executive officer of STTI, who received her BSN, MSN, and honorary doctorate from IU, and Nancy Sharts-Hopko, PhD, RN, FAAN, secretary of the STTI board of directors, who received her BSN there in 1976.
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In 1922, within 10 years of the school’s beginning, the six visionary nurses—Mary Tolle Wright, Edith Moore Copeland, Marie Hippensteel Lingeman, Dorothy Garrigus Adams, Elizabeth Russell Belford, and Elizabeth McWilliams Miller—founded Sigma Theta Tau. Early in the 20th century, professional roles and choices for women were severely limited, yet these six women went on to pave the way for the thousands of nurse leaders who followed them. Across the country and throughout the world, they fulfilled their call to nursing in places and ways that, until then, had not offered many opportunities to women and nurses, including the following:
  • State and national boards of nursing leadership
  • Hospital administration and directors of nursing
  • Public health nursing pioneers
  • U.S. Public Health Service recruitment
  • Nonprofit board leadership
  • Nurse educators (volunteer, academic, and faith-based)
  • Nursing practice and supervision (general duty, obstetrics, pediatrics, industrial, disaster preparedness, geriatric, and private offices)
  • National nurse association leadership
  • Field research for national health data-gathering
  • Paid and volunteer nursing in Nepal, Liberia, and Afghanistan
While accomplishing the above, each of the founders married and raised families. As revealed in retrospective interviews, they clearly understood they were breaking molds. Either through intuition or drive—perhaps some of both—they found the courage to become forces for change in the nursing profession.
According to Dorothy Garrigus Adams, the honor society was envisioned as a way for nurses to “improve themselves and their profession” and to serve “as an ideal toward which to strive.” The students’ dean, Ethel Palmer Clarke, insisted that the new organization be based on the merits of academic excellence. Accordingly “Sigma Theta Tau Fraternity,” as it was originally conceived, and its Alpha Chapter at Indiana University, were chartered and incorporated under the laws of the State of Indiana in October 1922. The honor society’s name, comprised of the Greek letters sigma, theta, and tau, stands for the Greek words storgé, tharsos, and timé, which, respectively, mean love, courage, and honor.
By 1927, a second chapter at Washington University had been established, and, soon afterward, the organization became national in scope. As membership grew, the founders realized the unique opportunity they had created to promote nursing not just as a profession, but as a critical component for improving the health of individuals and communities across the nation. Ninety-two years later, STTI serves 130,000 active members and the nursing profession at large in more than 85 countries. Members include practicing nurses, educators, researchers, administrators, policymakers, entrepreneurs, ministers of health, and others.
In 1988, STTI chartered its first chapter outside the United States, Iota Omicron at the University of Western Ontario. This was followed in 1989 by Lambda Alpha at-Large in South Korea and Lambda Beta at-Large in Taiwan. Since then, STTI has added chapters in all corners of the world, including Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and beyond. Opportunities for new chapters continue to emerge, ensuring that STTI fulfills its vision of being the global organization of choice for nursing.
In 1975, Sr. Rosemary Donley, PhD, RN, who was then president of STTI, commented on the remarkable vision of these six young women and the times in which they lived. She said that in 1922, when “nursing was not exactly a learned profession … these women conceptualized and spoke to a vision of nursing which was far from their educational or practical experience.” On behalf of our worldwide membership, I salute these nurses for their unique visionary capacity and the fruit it bore—the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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 Patricia Thompson, EdD, RN, FAAN

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