Nursing Studies

From Our History
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Chair of Nursing Studies was established in 1972 but teaching of the discipline began a quarter of a century earlier when Edinburgh became the first British university to establish a Nursing Training Unit.


Although nursing had been taught at university level in the United States since the late 19th century, academic nursing began much later in the United Kingdom and in Europe as a whole. Edinburgh University's Department of Nursing Studies has its roots in a Nurse Tutors' course established by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Scottish Branch, in 1946. This course was partly taught and examined by the RCN and partly by the university itself. Successful students were awarded a certificate by the university which, in turn, led to professional accreditation by the General Nursing Council for Scotland as a Registered Nurse Tutor (RNT).

In 1954, changes introduced to the RCN Nurse Tutors' course in England (which was extended from one year to two) necessitated urgent reform of the Scottish course. The course director, Margaret Lamb (1907-1992), had just returned from the United States where a Rockefeller Travelling Scholarship had permitted her to research degree courses in nursing. She was now determined to introduce similar courses here. At the same time a Canadian nurse Gladys Carter, who had lectured in nursing administration at Toronto University, took up a Research Fellowship in Edinburgh University's Department of Public Health and Social Medicine. Her research remit, supervised by Professor F. A. E. Crew, was to review the Nurse Tutors course.

Carter's final report identified two areas where reform was imperative. Firstly, she argued that a two-year course on the English model offered better balance and structure. Secondly, she noted that students could be admitted to the Edinburgh course on the strength of a professional reference alone, and without possessing the advanced school-leaving certificate that was mandatory for other university courses. Professor Crew convened a meeting of RCN and University staff involved in teaching the course at which it was proposed 1) to raise the course academically to the status of the ordinary arts or sciences degrees offered by Edinburgh University, 2) to admit only students with appropriate academic qualifications, and 3) to extend the course from one year to two.

These proposals, aimed at tightening up academic control of nurse education, were approved by the RCN Council in London, the General Nursing Council for Scotland, and the Department of Health for Scotland. Funding was now sought from the Rockefeller Foundation for the foundation of a Nursing Training Unit. This was granted in 1956, following a visit from Mary Elizabeth Tennant, Assistant Director of the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Division. Meanwhile, Professor Crew had attempted to persuade the Faculty of Medicine to house the new course, but the proposal was rejected due to fears that nurses would be incapable of dealing with the Faculty's standard of teaching. Instead the course was to be accommodated within the Faculty of Arts as this would permit nurses to receive teaching from the Faculty's Department of Education. The university advertised the post of director of the new Nursing Training Unit, and in 1956, Elsie Stephenson (1916-1967) was appointed as the successful candidate.


Stephenson's remit was to develop nurse education and to establish a research base for the discipline. The unit was initially based in George Square but in 1957 moved to Chalmers Street and was renamed the Nursing Studies Unit, a title which more accurately defined its functions. At this stage, Stephenson was assisted by two lecturers: Margaret Lamb (part-time) and the newly appointed Kathleen J. W. Wilson. They initially taught courses leading to a Certificate/Diploma in Advanced Nursing Education (leading to post-course registration as a Nurse Tutor) or to a Certificate/Diploma in Nursing Administration. Meanwhile, the unit's research profile was firmly established by the award of the university's first Ph.D. in Nursing Studies in 1959: Audrey L. John's 'A Study of the Psychiatric Nurse and his/her Role in the Care of the Mentally Sick'.

From October 1960 onwards, the Unit offered a five-year 'Integrated Degree Programme' where students combined a course of Nursing theory and practice with supplementary Arts or Science courses leading to graduation as either MA or BSc.

In 1962, the Unit opened an International School of Advanced Nursing Studies, financially supported by the World Health Organization, which offered programmes in administration or education, social medicine and nursing, and sciences applied to nursing. The first institution of its kind, this represented an important step in the promotion of higher education for nurses worldwide. It also helped to forge links between the Nursing Studies Unit and nursing organizations throughout the world, and to establish vital professional and research networks.

In 1963, the University of Edinburgh created a Faculty of Social Sciences, which incorporated a number of disciplines hitherto taught in the Faculty of Arts. These included Nursing Studies which now became an autonomous department with its own department head (Stephenson), thus achieving parity with longer established disciplines and considerably raising its academic profile. The Department moved from Chambers Street to new premises in the Adam Ferguson Building in George Square. Shortly afterwards the Integrated Degree Programme, which had developed an alarming drop-out rate was replaced by a BSc Social Sciences (Nursing) Degree.


In 1967, Elsie Stephenson died at the early age of 51. The Elsie Stephenson Fund was set up with the purpose of 'increasing opportunities for some of the best brains in Britain to develop their gifts to the full in Nursing and to encourage the Nursing profession to make appropriate use of all the tools and skills relevant to it'. This fund is still used today for regular commemorative lectures, studentships, staff development and research.

In 1968, Margaret Scott Wright (1923-2008) was appointed as Stephenson's successor. As head of department, she was particularly associated with two pioneering research initiatives. In 1970, the Nuffield Experimental Project (NEP) was initiated under her direction. This aimed to a) evaluate patient care in the hospital and community, 2) assess the effect of university education on the quality of care delivered by undergraduate nurses, 3) facilitate information exchange between academic and clinical nursing staff, and 4) implement nursing research in a controlled clinical setting. Wright was also the driving force behind the Nursing Research Unit, set up in 1971 to promote 'research mindedness' in the discipline and to provide an environment in which research policy in nursing could be more coherently formulated. Lisbeth Hockey (1918-2004) was appointed as the Research Unit's first director, supervising a wide range of studies connected with patient care and the organizational structure of nursing.

In 1972, Edinburgh University established the first Chair of Nursing Studies in Europe, appointing Margaret Scott Wright as the first incumbent. The chair was created in line with the recommendations of the Briggs Report (1971) which strongly supported university-level nurse education, arguing that an academic setting was vital both for developing professional knowledge and for training cadres of graduates with leadership qualities.

In 1975, the certificated courses in nurse teaching was replaced by an MSc in Nursing Education. This was part of a university-wide trend to do away with certificated courses and to replace them with full- or part-time Master's degrees. The MSc course covered Nursing Education Theory & Educational Administration, Psychology, Teaching Methodology & Practice, and the History of Educational Ideas. The shift away from certificated courses also led to the closure of the department's International School. Effectively, then, the university began to specialize in postgraduate level education for nurses while, at the same, polytechnics introduced degree courses for nurses.


In 1976, Margaret Scott Wright left to become Director of the School of Nursing at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia. Her successor was Annie Altschul (1919-2001), who had lectured in the department since 1964. Altschul was a specialist in mental health, perhaps best-known for her text-book Psychology for Nurses, which went through seven editions between 1965 and 1991. During her tenure, the department began to broaden the Nursing Studies curriculum through collaboration with other departments in the Faculty of Social Sciences. These initiatives resulted in three new Master' courses. Firstly, from 1978 onwards, Nursing Studies joined with Business Studies to offer an MSc in Nursing Administration which would prepare nurses to fulfil new management roles created by reorganization of the National Health Service in 1974. Then in 1979, the Department collaborated with the government's Scottish Education Unit to set up an innovative MSc in Health Education. Here the course objectives were to apprise students of Health education developments in the UK, promote the role of the nurse as health educator, and to examine ethical issues associated with health education. Finally, from 1986 onwards, the Department of Nursing Studies teamed up with the Department of Education to offer a new (theoretically based) MSc in Nursing and Education (1986).

Both Anna Altschul and Lisbeth Hockey retired in 1983. Hockey's successor as Director of the Nursing Research Unit was Penny Prophit, who specialized in mental health and burnout. The following year, however, Penny Prophit was appointed to the Chair of Nursing Studies, and Alison Tierney succeeded her as Director of the Nursing Research Unit.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Department extended its undergraduate programme, offering a new Honours Option in 1986, and introduced new Masters' courses that demonstrated awareness of emerging trends in health care and the nursing profession. A lectureship in Anatomy and Physiology (as related to nursing concepts) was created with a financial trust fund set up by ex-lecturer, Kathleen Wilson. The first post-holder, Roger Watson (1955- ), was appointed in 1989. In 1994, the department secured a MacMillan Cancer Relief Fund Lectureship, with Nora Jodrell as the first appointee. This led to the introduction of an MSc in Cancer Nursing, which was offered for the first time in 1995-96.

Conversely, in 1991, the MSc in Nursing Administration was withdrawn and replaced by an MSc in Nursing and Health Studies. The administration course had suffered from dwindling student numbers, probably related to the establishment of other programmes such as the Masters in Business Administration (MBA) that were perhaps better suited to the business ethos being promoted within the NHS.

In the early 1990s, the Department also began to participate in the European Union's ERASMUS Programme, forging links with the University of Navarre in Spain. Postgraduate students from Navarre were admitted to the MSc in Nursing and Health and members of the Department of the Nursing Studies travelled to Spain as visiting lecturers. This affiliation promoted shared values and a greater understanding of European nursing.

Penny Prophit resigned in 1993, and a year later the Nursing Research Unit closed, as government funding was withdrawn. Kath M. Melia, well-known for her publications in nursing ethics and sociology, became Head of Department in 1993, and assumed the Chair of Nursing Studies in 1996. Alison Tierney, former Director of the Nursing Research Unit was appointed Reader in the Nursing Studies Department in 1995 (and was subsequent awarded a Personal Chair in Nursing Research in 1997).

In 1996, the Department celebrated its 40th anniversary. To commemorate the event, lecturer Rosemary Weir published A Leap in the Dark, a brief monograph tracing the department’s history and profiling the key figures in its origins and development.

Key Recent Developments

  • 2001 - The undergraduate programme is reformed to increase its community emphasis and is renamed the Bachelor of Nursing with Honours.
  • 2007 - Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL), is incorporated into the nursing curriculum.
  • 2010 - Online undergraduate and postgraduate programmes developed for the Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN), at the University of Malawi.
  • 2012 - Tonks Fawcett receives a Personal Chair in Student Learning (Nurse Education).
  • 2013 - An innovative MSc in Nursing in Clinical Research is established.
  • 2015 - Professor Kath M. Melia retires.
  • 2016 - The Department of Nursing Studies celebrates its Diamond Jubilee. The crowning event of the year is an Alumni Conference on 4 November 2016 bringing together a diverse group of Nursing Studies graduates many of whom have become prominent academics, policy makers and innovative practitioners. The conference is designed to document the ‘leaps’ taken by individuals and groups during each of the six decades of the Department’s history. Aisha Holloway becomes the fifth holder of the Chair of Nursing Studies.

Professors of Nursing Studies


  • Linda Pollock, Pam Smith, and Daniel Kelly, 'Leaps in the Dark: Celebrating 60 years of Nursing Studies at the University of Edinburgh' [[1], accessed 7 December 2017]
  • Rosemary I. Weir, A Leap in the Dark: The Origins and Development of the Department of Nursing Studies, the University of Edinburgh (Penzance: Jamieson Library, 1996)