Deva-Marie Beck and the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health

Profiles in Nursing

Deva-Marie Beck and the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health

Taking on the world

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Did you ever have an "aha!” moment turn your life around in a completely different direction? Deva Beck did, when she was in her early forties no less. Since then, she has taken on the world — world health, that is. She has represented nurses at the World Health Organization and UN conferences and was the co-sponsor of an “International Tribute to Florence Nightingale at Scutari,” part of the 1996 UN Habitat II Summit in Istanbul.

The morning of our interview she had just delivered a talk via SKYPE to nursing leaders in Amman, Jordan. Along with Barbara Dossey, she is the international co-director of the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health (NIGH). She is the author of books (The Pleasure Connection, 1967 with James Beck; Florence Nightingale Today: Healing, Leadership, Global Action, 2005 with Barbara Dossey), book chapters, and articles — all this along with a 30-year clinical nursing career in critical care.

The Path to Nursing

That’s quite a few accomplishments for someone who definitely did not grow up wanting to be a nurse. The few she knew were “starched, prim, and proper. I never was that kind of person.” But a brush with life-threatening peritonitis gave her a glimpse of another aspect of nursing. The ability to care for someone who was suffering was a characteristic she could identify with, an aptitude she knew she had.

Other aptitudes became clearer through vocational training as a medical assistant, lab tech, and EKG tech. That last stint led her to the discovery that if she was smart enough to teach nurses how to read EKGs, she might be smart enough to become a nurse herself. And she did, right at Palomar College in San Diego. All the while, her mother and grandmother’s Christian Science background influenced her to appreciate the role of emotions and worldview in the process of healing.

In the late eighties, after running a California-based small business in continuing education for nurses, Beck became aware of her growing interest in global health issues and how the practice of medicine so often keeps everybody in “disease mode, as opposed to wellness.”         

Poor Health = Conflict

The “aha!” moment. She moved to Washington, D. C. and actually planned to leave nursing altogether. Fortunately, an insight led her to see the interconnections linking health with economics, ethnic strife, and much of the unrest that afflicts the world. Not only do these factors result in poor health for many, but poor health is itself often a contributing factor to conflict as well. Wellness and health are, in Beck’s view, pivotal rather than peripheral.

Social Networking

A chance meeting in preparation for a summit of UN-affiliated NGOs opened her eyes to the vast influence of Florence Nightingale. Beck came to appreciate that across the world Nightingale is not only a true heroine to nurses, but also someone who has much to offer the 21st century. She was a genius in communication at time when there was no Twitter or LinkedIn. A consummate letter writer before email and fax, she understood the role of culture and the environment on health. As an advocate she stuck her nose into every relevant issue, literally pushing the envelope each day.

People listened and things changed. That is what Deva Beck would like today’s 15 million nurses worldwide to understand and imitate. She wants us to be public advocates for patients everywhere. You may not agree with all of NIGH’s goals, but the call to advocacy can be implemented anywhere by any nurse.


To watch a four-minute video where Dr. Beck explains the goals of the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health, click here.

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