Profiles in Nursing

Edith Patton Lewis and the American Journal of Nursing

A psychiatric nurse who wrote herself into history

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Most nurses do not enjoy writing, and after years of charting in noncommittal sentence fragments, many cannot. There are exceptions, however. Mary Reinhart comes to mind, as does Louisa May Alcott. Another is Edith Patton Lewis. She didn’t write fiction; instead, she took to chronicle nursing, sometimes nursing history, sometimes professional developments.

Lewis originally studied psychology, and after graduating from Smith College began to work at a psychiatric facility. Within a short time, she concluded that she could better serve the mentally ill as a nurse. Because she could not meet the heavy science requirements of the Yale School of Nursing, she joined the post-baccalaureate program at Case Western Reserve University, graduating in 1939 with a master’s degree in nursing.

After several years in psychiatric nursing as a staff nurse, educator and administrator, the American Journal of Nursing asked her to join their editorial staff. For the next 35 years, until retirement, she was closely affiliated with the AJN, often working part time, sometimes in New York, sometimes from her home in Connecticut.

In time, Lewis also became the first managing editor of Nursing Research; and from 1970–1980, she was the editor of Nursing Outlook. She developed another product of the AJN Company, Contemporary Nursing Series. In addition, she had a hand in the many workshops on writing for publication sponsored by Sigma Theta Tau. Her constant admonition to would-be writers? Use plain English.

She also wrote two books: Opportunities in Nursing (1952) and Nurse: Careers within a Career in Professional Nursing (1962). Both supported her belief that nursing was a highly varied profession, with many choices open to anyone who completed the initial degree. Her own sidestep into journalism was a prime example.

During her long life as a reporter, writer and editor, Wilson wrote many articles and editorials that explained the actions of the national nursing organizations. She covered labor issues involving nurses; she paid close attention as well to the subject of the competing paths to professional nursing.

One famous incident she covered, and for which she was particularly well suited, occurred here in Southern California. In her 1966 AJN article “The Fairview Story,” she wrote about the deplorable conditions at a hospital for the mentally ill and developmentally delayed. Nurses were not allowed on some units, and were often supervised by psychiatric technicians. Even the director of nurses was not a nurse. The joint action of the nurses eventually forced the administration to listen and modify the conditions of patient care.

In another piece, “Fire on the Ninth Floor,” she reported on a 1961 fire that broke out in a trash chute of a 1,000-bed Connecticut hospital. Within an hour, the conflagration took fifteen lives, including patients, a nurse and a physician. Only the training and levelheaded response of the staff prevented further loss of life.

Even in retirement, Lewis kept active, always covering the convention of the American Nurses Association. She wrote well into her 90s, until failing eyesight made it impossible. In her later life, she said her primary professional satisfaction came from working with nurses who wanted to write; by critiquing and encouraging them, she helped many achieve their goals.

In 2004, Edith Lewis was named by the American Academy of Nursing what she had been for a long time — a Living Legend.   

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

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