Leah Curtin, Mother of Nursing Ethics

Profiles in Nursing

Leah Curtin, Mother of Nursing Ethics

Calling her influential is an understatement

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Nursing ethics is what Leah Curtin, ScD (h), RN, FAAN is most known for, but her reputation is multi-faceted. She is also a witty and provocative writer who can cut to the crux of any nursing issue. She is a popular speaker whose remarks spark standing ovations, and the American Academy of Nursing recently named her as a “living legend.”

It is quite a switch from the beginnings of her career, 10 years as a VA staff nurse and a stint with the VNA of Cincinnati. Those years weren’t uneventful though, and the problems she encountered in nursing school and her first jobs exposed her to behavior that later influenced her ethical positions.

One lesson she learned early: “When you draw a line in the sand about a principle or a stance, understand it is your line and your sand, and nobody else is going to defend that turf with you.” (Pivotal Moments in Nursing, 2007). She also cautions us to be sure we are standing on principle, not on ego.

Her Career Path

Curtin began as a diploma graduate of Good Samaritan Hospital School of Nursing in 1965. Later she earned a BSN and MSN from the University of Cincinnati and an M.A. in philosophy from the Athenaeum of Ohio. Her areas of concentration were linguistic analysis and ethics.

For 20 years she served as editor-in-chief of Nursing Management where her editorials, pungent yet funny, captured the attention of nursing leaders.  She was instrumental in the start of the Journal of Wound Care Management and a force behind the launch of the yearly Nursing Management Council. From 1998 until 2006 she was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Management. She has written over 300 articles and authored eight books, including the critically acclaimed Sunflowers in the Sand: Stories from Children of War.

Currently she is the executive editor of American Nurse Today, the official publication of the American Nurses Association, and a clinical professor of nursing at the University of Cincinnati School of Nursing and Health.

A Nurse’s Conscience

Known for her catchy titles, Curtin writes on abuse of power in the medical–nursing realm, pointing out that true leadership is getting things done, not a title of authority.  

Curtin argues that nurses are independent persons who have a right to conscience clauses in work environments. She participated in the overturning of Wolfe v. Schoening, a 1976 legal case that in reversal established a nurse’s legal rights of conscience. With other colleagues, she was instrumental in getting ethics courses established in the standard nursing curriculum; along with M. Josephine Flaherty, she wrote a textbook, Nursing Ethics: Theories and Pragmatics.  Curtin teaches that a critical ethical issue in nursing today is that nurses cannot practice as they know they should.

In describing Curtin the authors of Pivotal Moments in Nursing write “it is like trying to catch a butterfly. Just when you think you have captured her essence, the story darts in another direction and reveals an entirely new aspect of her expertise and intelligence.”    

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

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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