Ruby L. Wilson Ed.D. '69: Nursing Pioneer

Ruby L. Wilson Ed.D. '69

Credit: Les Todd

Nearly all of the initiatives that Ruby L. Wilson R.N., F.A.A.N. helped launch during her nearly sixty years in the nursing profession are now standard operating procedure: Nurses are an integral part of comprehensive patient care, collaborating with physicians and others on treatment and diagnostic protocols. Nursing-school curricula combine clinical electives and core courses with independent study and study-abroad options. Professional nursing associations draft legislative policies and forge interdisciplinary collaborations to benefit the entire health-care spectrum. But when Wilson started out, none of these existed.

Wilson came to Duke from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in 1955 at the age of twenty-four, after earning her B.S.N.Ed. degree from  the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. She taught senior students as an instructor in the School of Nursing's advanced medical-surgical nursing course in the new bachelor of science in nursing program. With colleagues in nursing and medicine, she helped develop the first clinical master's program in the country in 1957. In 1963, she was appointed the first clinical nurse specialist at Duke Medical Center, with faculty appointments in the nursing school and the medical school and a special appointment in Duke Hospital.

With the exception of a few short stints elsewhere, including as a consultant with the Rockefeller Foundation in Bangkok, Thailand, she has spent her entire professional life at Duke. She was dean of the nursing school from 1971 to 1984 and fought to keep the graduate program in nursing when then-chancellor Kenneth Pye "retrenched" the undergraduate nursing degree program—a decision based on cost that still rankles her and many nursing school alumnae and former faculty members. (The A.B.S.N. program has since been established.)

This past November, Wilson was celebrated by the American Academy of Nurses as a Living Legend, an honor that recognized her "extraordinary and sustained contributions to nursing and health care." The honor caps an accomplished career that includes a host of other awards, including the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service, the highest honor Duke bestows, in 2006, and the inaugural School of Nursing Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the Duke Alumni Association, in 2008. Wilson, who lives in Durham and remains active in the Duke community, maintains the titles of dean emerita of the nursing school, professor of nursing, and assistant to the chancellor for health affairs.

At the national level, Wilson has testified before Congress and helped draft nursing legislation. She was elected to the American Academy of Nursing and the Institute of Medicine, through which she lobbied successfully for a National Institute of Nursing Research. She was also appointed to the National Council of Nurse Training of the U.S. Public Health Service.

Wilson was born into a family that emphasized service to others. Her father was a ticket agent for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and served as a lay minister for three rural congregations. Her mother took in convalescents from the nearby hospital, collected used clothing for the less fortunate to wear to church, and used naturopathy techniques that had been passed down for generations.

"I grew up with home remedies," recalls Wilson, "so the nature of nursing was not foreign to me." As a nursing student, she recalls, she once successfully used a family solution for vomiting—the water left over after beating egg whites—to alleviate a patient's distress.

Sometimes, it takes a while for society and the medical profession to catch up to her ideas. For example, in 1974, Wilson's long-held belief that hospitals should model positive health practices led her to introduce a no-smoking policy for patients, visitors, and staff members in Duke hospital and its clinics. "However," she notes, "it took us until 2007 to be entirely smoke-free."

Wilson is still considered by many who know her to be the quintessential health-care expert. "I receive three to five calls a week from people asking me what they should do about this or that condition or requesting a physician referral," she says. "I tell them to write out their questions in advance so they won't forget them when they see their doctor and that they need to have an advocate for their health care."

It's a role that Wilson has played her entire life.

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