Women’s History Month: Hildegard Peplau

It’s Women’s History Month so we’re adding to last year’s series on women who have made an impact on medicine. Up next is Hildegard Peplau.

Peplau was born in Pennsylvania in 1909. Her parents were German immigrants and Peplau watched her homemaker mother and wanted more from life. She understood that nursing was one of the few careers open to women and attended the Pottstown Hospital School of Nursing. After graduating, she worked as a staff nurse in both Pennsylvania and New York. She later took a position at Bennington College in Vermont, where she worked as a school nurse and also earned her bachelor’s degree in interpersonal psychology.

During World War II, she served in the Army Nurse Corps. She was assigned to the 312th Field Station Hospital in England. The American School of Military Psychiatry was also there and because of that, Peplau was able to meet and work with some of the leading minds in mental health. She helped pass the National Mental Health Act of 1946 once she returned from the war.

Much of Peplau’s work was focused on the nurse-patient relationship. At the time, this was unheard of. Most nurses saw their relationship as a passive one from the patient’s perspective. Instead, she wanted nurses to observe and talk to patients to help treat them. She published a book, Interpersonal Relations in Nursing in the 1950s. Although the book was completed in 1948, she had a hard time finding a publisher because she didn’t have a coauthoring physician, which was customary at the time for nurses who published works.

Some of her additional accolades and accomplishments include:

  • Masters and doctoral degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Certified in psychoanalysis by the William Alanson White Institute
  • Faculty member at the College of Nursing at Rutgers University
  • Created first graduate level program for preparation of clinical specialists in psychiatric nursing
  • Advisor to the World Health Organization
  • Consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Air Force and the National Institute of Mental Health
  • President of the American Nurses Association, 1970-1972, second vice-president, 1972-1974
  • Visiting professor at the University of Leuven

Peplau was a single mother to one daughter and passed away in 1999.