A lasting legacy of nursing research

By Deidre M. Blank and Patricia Moritz | 12/01/2006

Nursing research at the federal level of the U.S. government has a rich heritage.

Deidre BlankTwenty years ago, the Nursing Research Branch of the Division of Nursing at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) was in the throes of giving birth to a new entity at the National Institutes of Health. Initially named the National Center for Nursing Research, it later became the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). The early leaders of NINR have been deservedly recognized elsewhere, but it was those in the Division of Nursing, where Jo Eleanor Elliott was division director, who set the foundation for what could be.

Patricia MoritzThe National Center for Nursing Research (NCNR) was authorized under the Health Research Extension Act of 1985 (Public Law 99-158). In April 1986, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary Otis R. Bowen announced that the research center would become part of National Institutes of Health (NIH). NCNR’s charge was to conduct a program supportive of nursing research and research training with emphasis on patient care, promotion of health, prevention of illness, responses to acute/chronic illness and disability across the life span, and ethical and public policy issues related to delivery of patient care. In June 1993, the center became an institute, NINR.

While the move to NIH eventually meant new leadership and superstructure for nursing research and research training within the U.S. government, it was the “old guard” from HRSA’s Division of Nursing (DN) who played a pivotal initial role. It seems only fitting that, on the 20th anniversary of nursing research at NIH, we pay tribute to the nurses who helped establish a lasting foundation for nursing research and research training at the federal level.

When Robert Greenleaf, noted author and lecturer on leadership, reminded us, “Good leaders must first become good servants,” he must have had the old guard in mind. If there was one characteristic common to these early nurse leaders, it surely was their clear dedication to quality research that served the nursing profession so well. The research leadership they provided at the DN laid the groundwork for what is now NINR.

Susan R. Gortner, RN, PhD, FAAN*—As chief of the Nursing Research Branch at the DN, Gortner was the architect who envisioned what nursing research could be. She led development of what became the foundation of NIH nursing research. A strong leader, Gortner shaped policies that garnered early congressional support for nursing research at the federal level. Her insight into what the predoctoral training program in nursing research could become resulted in the first such grants to nurses.

Gortner was steadfast in her expectation for a high level of quality in the DN’s early research studies, maintaining that their rigor had to be on par with that of NIH. This approach fostered the growth of nursing science and the eventual move of nursing research to NIH.

She worked effectively behind the scenes. During her tenure at the DN, the National Academy of Science developed for the first time a definition of nursing research and specified that nursing was a new area of science. This was a defining moment for nursing.

Recognizing the importance of a cadre of nurse scientists working together on a common clinical phenomenon to achieve breakthroughs in science, Gortner was instrumental in establishing national nursing research centers. The effectiveness of that approach continues to be demonstrated today in NINR-funded research centers.

Finally, Gortner eloquently described the contributions of nursing research to clinical practice through her many publications.

Doris Bloch, RN, DrPH, FAAN*—Bloch is a legend among nurse researchers and among those whose research careers she influenced. She succeeded Gortner as leader of the Nursing Research Branch at the DN, after serving as chief of the Research Support Section.

Bloch contributed significantly to nursing research by categorizing nursing terminology and clarifying concepts, such as defining goals and objectives for nursing research centers. The concepts of quality nursing care published by Bloch, who was interested in the theory and measurement of health care, were precursors of concepts used today.

In 1986, Bloch led the transfer of nursing research and training programs from HRSA’s Division of Nursing to NIH’s newly created National Center for Nursing Research (NCNR). As interim extramural director and branch chief at NCNR, she assumed primary responsibility for program planning and evaluation before finishing her career as special assistant to the director of the National Institute of Nursing Research.

Bloch recognized early on that, although nurse scientists from different specialties used the same clinical terms, the words had entirely different meanings. Had this definitional issue not been identified and directly managed, confusion and conflict may have resulted once research priorities were chosen and implemented through targeted initiatives.

Always the faithful steward for nursing research, Bloch was a dedicated professional who provided exemplary service to the nursing profession. In her quiet and unassuming way, she served as a mentor to many nurses who today are in pivotal leadership positions.

Thomas P. Phillips, RN, PhD, FAAN—Phillips, an early member of the Nursing Research Branch at the DN, worked closely with Gortner in developing new grant mechanisms, including the Faculty Development Research and Predoctoral Research Grants. His later role as director of the Advanced Nurse Training Program and his concern for quality doctoral education helped lay the foundation for nursing science as a major clinical research discipline. Phillips enabled development of strong master’s and doctoral programs in which students were educated in clinical research.

Marie J. Bourgeois, RN, PhD—Bourgeois, an early leader in the development of new nurse researchers through her management role in the Division of Nursing’s predoctoral research training program, provided oversight of the National Research Service Awards during her tenure at the DN. At the time of her retirement, she was honored for her service by her many “trainees.”

Adele Wood, RN, PhD*—Wood continued Bourgeois’ legacy of nurturing aspiring nurse researchers, ensuring that nursing had the cadre of nurse scientists needed to meet future nursing research needs. National Research Service Awards for predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships and career development awards came under Wood’s purview both at the DN and NIH.

Harriet (Bunny) D. Carroll, RN, MS, and Ruth Aladj, RN, MS*—These two key assistants also helped “make it happen.” Carroll worked closely with Bloch and served as a staff member in the Research Support Section at the DN, assisting nurse researchers in the development of quality grant applications. After retiring, she continued to volunteer at NIH, assisting with research priority initiatives. She was a great “right arm” for Gortner and Bloch, and could always be counted on to get things done. Aladj worked closely with Bloch in the research program, serving as lead staff person to the Nursing Research Advisory Council at both the DN and NCNR.

Gertrude (Trudy) K. McFarland, RN, DNSc, FAAN—McFarland initially worked in the special projects program at the DN and was the first scientific review administrator for nursing research at NIH. She and her staff, who continue to be recognized for the quality of their work, play an invaluable role at the NIH Center for Scientific Review, ensuring rigorous and timely processing of nursing research grant applications.

Nursing research at the federal level of the U.S. government has a rich heritage due, in part, to the early leadership of these nurses. With their passion for excellence and detail, they advocated effectively for the nursing profession, nurturing and mentoring future generations of nurse scientists. Through their efforts, they helped build a lasting legacy for nursing research at the national level.

* deceased

Deidre M. Blank, RN, DSN, FAAN, a nurse consultant, is associated with Behavioral Measurement Database Services of Pittsburgh, Pa. She previously worked in the Nursing Research Branch at the Division of Nursing and was chief of the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Branch at NIH’s National Center for Nursing Research.

Patricia Moritz, RN, PhD, FAAN, dean and professor at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center School of Nursing, previously served in the Division of Nursing and was chief of the Nursing Systems Branch at NIH’s National Center for Nursing Research and its successor, National Institute of Nursing Research.

Patricia McCormick, RN, PhD, also contributed valuable input to this article. McCormick, who recently retired as program director of the Cancer Centers Branch at the National Cancer Institute, previously worked in the Nursing Research Branch at the Division of Nursing and was chief of the Acute and Chronic Illness Branch of NIH’s National Center for Nursing Research.

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