Jean Watson, RN, Ph.D., AHN-C, FAAN and a Theory of Caring

Profiles in Nursing

Jean Watson, RN, Ph.D., AHN-C, FAAN and a Theory of Caring

Caring heals the nurse as well as the patient

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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When Jean Watson entered the American Academy of Nursing as a Living Legend in 2013, it seemed to mark the resurgence of a characteristic of nursing that at times has fallen into disfavor: caring.

Early on, Watson recognized that in the push toward professionalism and evidence-based practice, nursing had lost something of Florence Nightingale’s original vision of nursing as a calling based in service. Watson has spent her entire career working to promote the importance of caring and elevate it to the realm of hard science — a quantifiable process with real potential to transform the care that nurses provide.

Career Snapshot

Born in West Virginia, Watson began her nursing career at the Lewis-Gale School of Nursing in Roanoke, Va., becoming an RN in 1961. She continued her education after resettling with her family in Colorado a year later, earning her BSN, MSN and Ph.D. (in educational psychology and counseling) from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Many years of teaching followed, with Watson becoming a professor and later a dean of the University of Colorado Denver School of Nursing. Under her leadership, the school established its first doctoral programs for nurses. The Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing now awards the M. Jean Watson Scholarship for DNP candidates at the University of Colorado Denver.  

The Hard Science of Caring

In the mid-70s, not long after completing her doctorate, Watson embarked on what has become her life’s work: Caring Science.

Her theory of human caring is based on the idea that caring is distinct from curative treatment, although the two often intersect and complement one another. Watson notes that medical science is now finding that what she calls “carative” factors can have a real impact on the efficacy of curative therapies.

Healing the Nurse

Watson argues that not only are human contact and compassion vital to healing, they are also essential for caregivers. She believes that the absence of caring contributes to a perennial problem within the nursing profession: burnout.             

“Nurses who are not able to practice caring can become hardened, brittle, worn down and robot-like,” she wrote in 2009.

Watson published the first version of her Theory of Human Caring in 1979. She went on to found the Center for Human Caring and the Watson Caring Science Institute, both based in Boulder, and has written or co-written more than 20 books and more than 100 articles on the science of caring. She has traveled extensively to promote and teach her theory, which is now taught in nursing schools throughout the world.

“You must be authentically present, be mindful that what you hold in your heart matters,” says Watson of nursing. “You help the person be in the right relationship with themselves. Holding their stories, their tears, that might be the healing gift you can give them.”

Learn more about caring science theory by visiting

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

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