Hildegard Peplau

1909 - 1999

Hildegard E. Peplau, 89, one of the world's leading nurses and theorists, known to many as the "Nurse of the Century," died March 17th, 1999, at her home in Sherman Oaks, California. Dr. Peplau is the only nurse to serve the America Nurses Association as Executive Director and later as President. She was also elected to serve two terms on the Board of the International Council of Nurses (ICN). In 1997 she recieved the world of nursing's highest honour, the Christiane Reimann Prize, at the ICN Quadrennial Congress. This award is given once every four years for outstanding national and international contributions to nursing and healthcare. In 1996, the American Academy of Nursing honoured Peplau as a "Living Legend," and in 1998 the American Nurses Association inducted her into the ANA Hall of Fame.

Dr. Peplau is universially regarded as the "mother of psychiatric nursing." Her theoretical and clinical work led to the development of the distinct speciality filed of psychiatric nursing. Dr. Peplau's seminal book, Interpersonal Relations in Nursing (1952), was completed in 1948. Publication was delayed for four years, however, because at that time it was considered too revolutionary for a nurse to publish a book without a physician co-author. Peplua's book has been widely credited with the transformation of nursing from a group of skilled workers to a full-fledged profession. Since the publication of Peplau's work, interpersonal process has been universally integrated into nursing education and nursing practices througout the United States and abroad. It has been argued that Dr. Peplau's life and work produced the greatest changes in nursing practice since Florence Nightingale.

Dr. Peplau was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from universities including: Alfred, Duke, Indiana, Ohio State, Rutgers, and the University of Ulster in Ireland. Dr. Peplau was named one of "50 Great Americans" in Who's Who in 1995 by Marquis. She was elected fellow of the American Academy of Nurse and Sigma Theta Tau, the national nursing honorary society.

Hilda Peplau was born September 1, 1909, in Reading Pennsylvania, the second daughter of immigrants Gustav and Ottylie Peplau. She was one of six children, having two sisters and three brothers. As a child, she witnessed the devastating flu epidemic of 1918. This personal experience greatly influenced her understanding of the impact of illness and death on families.

Peplau began her career in nursing in 1931 as a graduate of the Pottstown, Pennsylvania School of Nursing. She then worked as aa staff nurse in Pennsylvania and New York City. A summer position as a nurse for the New York University summer camp led to a recommendation for Peplau to become the school nurse at Bennington College in Vermont. There she earned a Bachelor's degree in interpersonal psychology in 1943. At Bennington and through filed experiences at Chesnut Lodge, a private psychiatric facility, she studied psychological issues with Erich Fromm, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, and Harry Stack Sullivan. Peplau's lifelong work was largely focused on extending Sullivan's interpersonal theory for use in nursing practice.

From 1943-1945 she served in the Army Nurse Corps and was assigned to the 312th Field Station Hospital in England, where the American School of Military Psychiatry was located. Here she met and worked with all the leading figures in British and American psychiatry. After the war, Peplau was at the table with many of these same men as they worked to reshape the mental health system in the United States through the passage of the National Mental Helath Act of 1946.

Peplau held master's and doctoral degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University. She was certified in psychoanalysis by theWilliam Alanson White Institute of New York City. In the early 1950s, Peplau developed and taught the first classes for graduate psychiatric nursing students at Teachers College. Dr. Peplau was a member of the faculty of the College of Nursing at Rutgers University from 1954-1974. At Rutgers, Peplau created the first graduate level program for the preparation of clinical specialists in psychiatric nursing. She was a prolific writer and was equally well known for her presentations, speeches, and clinical training workshops. Peplau vigorously advocated tht nurses should become further educated so they could provide truly therapeutic care to patients rather than the custodial care that was prevalent in the mental hospitals of that era. DUring the 1950s and 1960s, she conducted summer workshops for nurses throughout the United States, mostly in state psychiatric hospitals. In these seminars, she taught interpersonal concepts and interviewing techniques, as well as individual, family, and group therapy. Peplau was an advisor to the the World Health Organization and was a visiting professor at universities in Africa, Latin America, Belgium, and throughout the United States. A strong advocate for graduate education and research in nursing, Peplau served as a consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Institute of Mental Health. SHe participated in many government policy making groups. After her retirement from Rutgers, she served as a visiting professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium in 1975 and 1976. There she helped establish the first graduate nursing program in Europe.

Peplau once said that the test of a good idea was whether or not it had staying power. Her original book from 1952 has been translated into nine languages and in 1989 was reissued in Great Britain by Macmillan of London.In 1989, Springer pubished a volume of selected works of Peplau from previously unpublished papers. peplau's ideas have, indeed, stood the test of time. The archives of her work and life are housed at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.

Dr. Peplau is survived by Dr. Leitia Anne Peplau and her husband, Dr. Steven Gordon, and their son, David Gordon of Sherman Oaks, CA; sister, Bertha Reppert (Byron), Mechanicsburg, PA; brother, John D. Forster (Dorethy), Reading, PA; niece, Dr. Carolynn Sears (Phillip) and children, Jessica and Jacob Sears, Pound Ridge, NY; niece Majorie Reppert, Jim Thorpe, PA; niece, Nancy Reppert, Mechanicsburg, PA; niece, SUsanna Reppert (David Brill), Mechanicsburg, PA; niece, Karen Bently (William) and son, William, Sudbury, MA; and nephew, Carl Peplau, Hopewell Junction, NY.

The family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Peplau Research Fund; c/o American Nurses Foundation; 600 Maryland Avenue SW, Suite 100; Washington DC 20024-2571 or to the Schlesinger Library; Radcliffe College, Harvard University; 10 Garden Street; Cambridge, MA; 02138-3630.

A private family service will be held at a later date. Tributes are being planned by the American Nurses Association, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, and other nursing organizations.

Written by Dr. Grayce Sills, with assistance from Dr. L. Anne Peplau, and Bertha Reppert.