Hildegard E. Peplau, Ed.D, RN, FAAN (September 1, 1909 – March 17, 1999), known as the “mother of psychiatric nursing,” was a nursing theorist and one of the world’s leading nurses known to many as the “Nurse of the Century”.
In 1943, while obtaining her degree in psychology at Bennington College in Vermont, Hildegard Peplau worked alongside Erich Fromm, Freida Fromm-Reichmann and Harry Stack Sullivan. Much of Peplau’s life’s work focused on the extension of Sullivan’s theories. During World War II, Peplau served in the army nurse corps and was stationed in England where she met and worked with many of the leading figures in British and American Psychiatry. After the war she continued to work with these men on improving the mental health system in the U.S. and on the passage of the mental health act.
Dr. Peplau is the only nurse to serve the American Nurses Association (ANA) 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 received the world of nursing’s highest honor, the Christiane Reimann Prize, at the ICN Quadrennial Congress. This award is given once every 4 years for outstanding national and international contributions to nursing and health care. In 1996 the American Academy of Nursing honored Peplau as a “Living Legend,” and in 1998 the ANA inducted her into the ANA Hall of Fame.
Dr. Peplau was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from universities including Alfred, Duke, Indiana, Ohio State, Rutgers, and the University of Ulster in Ireland. She was named one of “50 Great Americans” in Who’s Who in 1995 by Marquis. She was an elected fellow of the American Academy of Nurses and of Sigma Theta Tau, the national nursing honorary society.
Hildegard Peplau’s fifty-year career in nursing left an indelible stamp on the profession of nursing, and on the lives of the mentally ill in the United States. Her life was often marked with controversy, which she faced with courage and determination.
Hildegard Peplau was born September 1, 1909, in Reading, PA, the second daughter of immigrants Gustav and Ottylie Peplau, and one of six children. As a child, she witnessed the devastating flu epidemic of 1918, a personal experience that 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, PA, School of Nursing. She then worked as a staff nurse in Pennsylvania and New York City. A summer position as 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 field experiences at Chestnut Lodge, a private psychiatric facility, she studied psychological issues with Erich Fromm, Frieda FrommReichmann, and Harry Stack Sullivan. Peplau’s life-long work was largely focused on extending Sullivan’s interpersonal theory for use in nursing practice.
From 1943 to 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 Health Act of 1946.
Peplau held master’s and doctoral degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University. She was also certified in psychoanalysis at the William 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 to 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 that 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 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, she served as a consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Institutes 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.
Her theoretical and clinical work led to the development of the distinct specialty field of psychiatric nursing. Dr. Peplau’s seminal book, Interpersonal Relations in Nursing (1952), was completed in 1948. Publication was delayed for 4 years because at that time it was considered too revolutionary for a nurse to publish a book without a physician co-author. Peplau’s book has been widely credited with transforming nursing from a group of skilled workers to a fully fledged profession. Since the publication of Peplau’s work, interpersonal process has been universally integrated into nursing education and nursing practices throughout 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.
Peplau once said that the test of a good idea was whether 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. In 1989 Springer published 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.