Dorothy Ford Buschmann and Sigma Theta Tau

Profiles in Nursing

Dorothy Ford Buschmann and Sigma Theta Tau

Founder of the Nursing Honor Society

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Dorothy Buschmann did not start Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), but without her guidance and vision, what is now the international nursing honor society would probably have never have become more than a small alumni club for the Indiana University Training School for Nurses. It was Buschmann’s efforts and leadership that propelled the group into national prominence and kept it together during its early years.

Recognizing Scholarship

Buschmann graduated from the Training School for Nurses in 1919 and promptly became active in the school’s alumnae association. In an effort to maintain their friendships as the group scattered, the group launched a newsletter and selected Buschmann as its editor.

After the newsletter was established, six students, later popularly known as the “six stars,” approached Buschmann for help in starting an organization that would promote nursing as a profession and serve in some small way as a counterpart to the tension that existed (then as now) between the ideals of nursing and the daily routine. They asked Buschmann to help to write the organization’s charter, bylaws and constitution. The organization was modeled on the Greek fraternities of major universities, but an additional source of inspiration was Superintendent Ethel Palmer Clarke, who established the requirement that the professional society recognize merit and scholarship and be located within an academic setting.

With help from her husband, a lawyer, Buschmann obtained approval for the society from the Indiana secretary of state on Oct. 5, 1922. The first induction ceremony for STTI’s Alpha Chapter was held Oct. 16, 1922. Invitations were extended to students who exemplified the values encouraged by the organization and who had successfully completed a minimum number of semesters.

Opposing Philosophies

From the very beginning, there was polarizing disagreement within STTI over standards, dues and what constituted nursing excellence. Major questions included whether the society would maintain its high standards and thereby court charges of elitism, how local chapters should be established in the absence of a clear procedure and how to cultivate a more business-like approach.

As Diane Hamilton notes in her brief history of Sigma Theta Tau in American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary, Buschmann believed that nursing‘s foundation was love, that it depended on strength and that it embodied honorable service to humanity. Buschmann strongly believed that nursing was a moral enterprise that resulted in knowledge and service. By contrast, other Sigma Theta Tau leaders believed that nursing excellence emerged from superior minds, which in turn led to moral choices and social service. Those philosophies were not seen as complementary and in 1934, Buschmann relinquished the presidency she had held since the beginning.

By that time, she had been instrumental in gaining national recognition for the society, which now included six schools. The society had also produced the first issue of the Sigma Theta Tau journal, Image, and had almost 300 members. Today, the prestigious organization boasts 131,980 members across 486 chapters in 26 countries.

Later Life

Buschmann spent the remainder of her life engaged in various community service efforts, including managing the local Cancer Society, working with the League of Women Voters, establishing a prenatal room at an Indianapolis hospital and directing a local center for uniformed men during World War II. Today, her portrait hangs in the Founders’ Room of Sigma Theta Tau International in Indianapolis and every year, the international president presents an award named after Buschmann to recognize excellence in nursing. The organization often refers to her as the “seventh star.”

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