Catherine M. Kain, RN and State Dept. Diplomat

Profiles in Nursing

Catherine M. Kain, RN and State Dept. Diplomat

In the effort to resist communism, nurses were assigned to countries all over the world

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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At the end of World War II, President Harry S Truman faced a world in which more than half the population was living in misery caused in part by inadequate food and rampant disease.   

He proposed as part of his larger agenda to  “embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of undeveloped areas.”

Commonly known as the Point Four Program, the endeavor sought to help unaligned nations resist Communism and the encroachments of the Soviet Union. Catherine Kain agreed with Truman’s approach to foreign policy, and she was to spend her entire nursing career in the State Department fostering improved health and nursing services throughout the world.

Career Path

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1909, Kain’s parents died when she was young, and she and a brother and sister were raised by an aunt. Her mother had been a nurse, and following in her footsteps, Kain entered nursing school at the age of 16. In July 1928, she graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing, Milwaukee. Although World War II interrupted her graduate studies, in 1953 she obtained her master’s from the Catholic University of America.  

During the war itself, she served in the Navy Nurse Corps and spent considerable time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That assignment was really the beginning of her service to other nations.

After the war she returned to Latin America in a project that started as part of Truman’s Point Four Program and eventually evolved into a more formal part of the State Department as the Agency for International Development (AID), now the U.S. Agency for International Development.   

Nurses Take Charge

By 1958 Kain was the chief nursing adviser of AID, and in her work she recruited nurses and assigned them to countries all over the world. Her role led to extensive travel and gave her the opportunity to become adept at many languages. She also came to understand the distinctive customs of the people she served and tailored the programs to the particular circumstances in which the nurses would be serving.

The nurses were taught to meet emergencies first, and then to establish long-lasting programs that would improve health services and education. They helped train foreign nurses and worked to upgrade nursing practices, always keeping in mind the state of local conditions and the country’s relation to the United States.

In some circumstances, basic concepts of public health received emphasis. In more developed areas, the nurse advisor helped with curriculum planning, licensing procedures, and the establishment of standards of nursing practice.

Kain’s own vast clinical experience provided the practical know-how. She often participated in international seminars and promoted collaboration with other international organizations, like UNICEF and WHO. She also promoted exchange at the university level, encouraging American schools to accept foreign nurses and to provide staff and technical assistance abroad.

At her death, friends and colleagues set up a scholarship fund for foreign students at Catholic University of America School of Nursing. When she died from cancer at age 55, some 70 nursing advisors worked in over 40 different countries.

Global Ambassador

According to Leona Baumgartner, assistant administrator of AID at the time, “It’s an understatement to describe her as a chief nursing adviser. The scope, operation and impact of her services have caused major changes in country after country where she has worked.”   

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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