Men in Nursing: 8 Who Paved the Way


Men in Nursing: 8 Who Paved the Way

pioneering nurses who have opened doors and set the standard for men in nursing

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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While men make up only a small percentage of today’s nurses, that was not always the case. In the era before Florence Nightingale successfully wrested the profession away from men and made it a socially acceptable, even desirable profession for women, men dominated the field. A few examples include St. Benedict; Gerard Thom, founder of the Knights Hospitaller (now the Knights of Malta); Juan Cuidad, founder of the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God; and St. Alexis, the patron of the Alexian Brothers, who founded various hospitals and schools of nursing in the United States.

Highlighted below are eight more recent male practitioners of the nursing arts, multi-talented individuals who have broken barriers to practice for men while attaining high levels of professional achievement.

Walt Whitman, the great American poet and author of “O Captain! My Captain!” and Leaves of Grass, was also a dedicated nurse who entered the field as a volunteer visitor of wounded soldiers, a task he clearly enjoyed. The mounting casualties of the Civil War quickly drew him into a more harrowing role: caring for severely injured men with severed limbs, gangrene and uncontrolled pain.

Whitman’s efforts, motivated by compassion and altruism, earned him the trust and the appreciation of surgeons and soldiers alike, but he never accepted pay for his service, instead using his private funds to support the care of the wounded. The experience had a lasting effect on both his health and his poetry.

LeRoy Craig, RN, was a lifelong advocate for men in nursing. Craig was responsible for first alerting Rep. Frances Bolton (R-Ohio) to the plight of male nurses in the military and Craig’s efforts as a lobbyist ultimately led to federal legislation — the Bolton Act — permitting men to be commissioned as officers in the armed services at parity with female nurses.

From the very beginning, Craig understood that while some might agitate for progress, the best way forward was to offer evidence of highly qualified male nurses. To that end, he worked ceaselessly within national organizations and journals to promote the cause of men in nursing. He was the founding director of the men’s nursing department of the Pennsylvania Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases and concurrently served as the first director of the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for Men. Craig also saw specialty nursing as offering the best opportunities for men and encouraged his graduates to enter into specialized fields like industrial, urologic, military and psychiatric nursing.

Not least among Craig accomplishments was his effort to increase pay for nurses. Having once had to work outside of the profession in order to support his wife and family, he well understood the need for good pay to attract talented men and women to the field.

2nd Lt. Edward T. Lyon, RN, a nurse anesthetist, was the first man to be commissioned as a reserve officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. He began active duty four days later, on Oct. 10, 1955.

Lyon’s commission followed President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s signature of the Bolton Act on Aug. 9, 1955, which finally ended years of debate and rancor over the role of male nurses in the U.S. armed forces. Before Lyon’s landmark commission, fully qualified male nurses who wished to serve were consigned to lesser roles like pharmacy tech and orderly. Today, more than 35 percent of U.S. military nurses are men, a far greater percentage than in the civilian nursing profession.

Joe Hogan, RN, was an African-American nurse with an associate degree working as a supervisor in a large community hospital in the late ‘70s. In 1979, he decided to further his education and pursue a bachelor’s degree, but the closest program that accepted men was almost 150 miles away. Hogan applied to the Mississippi University for Women, a state-supported school in his home town, but was denied admission. He was told he could audit classes, but could not receive credit.

Hogan sued the school, claiming that his 14th Amendment rights had been violated. His case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in 1982, ending sex discrimination in all schools across the country. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court and a victim of discrimination in her own life, delivered the court’s majority opinion.

Luther Christman, RN, Ph.D., FAAN, was a nurse and hospital administrator who argued throughout his career for gender and racial equality and diversity in nursing. In his own career, Christman was denied admission to two different nursing programs because he was a man. Even after being admitted to Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for Men, his gender led to his being refused the opportunity to study in a maternity rotation.

Christman held senior academic posts at several universities, including Vanderbilt, the University of Michigan and Rush University. He became the first man to become dean of a U.S. nursing school, a role that enabled him to hire African-American women for Vanderbilt faculty positions.

The primary nurse model of care was Christman’s brainchild, as were several other innovations in nursing practice. He was one of the founders of the National Male Nurse Association, which later became the American Assembly for Men in Nursing (AAMN). Christman eventually was named a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nurses and was the first man inducted into the American Nurses Association (ANA) Hall of Fame. He was also the namesake for the AAMN’s prestigious Luther Christman award.

John Devereux Thompson, RN, M.S., was named to the ANA Hall of Fame in 1992. His greatest achievement was his development — with his colleagues at Yale — of the diagnosis research groups (DRGs) that now form the basis of Medicare reimbursement.         Dean Margaret Grey of Yale School of Nursing wrote at the time of Thompson’s appointment to the ANA Hall of Fame that his accomplishments also “encompassed studies of nursing service delivery, hospital operations and architecture, planning for hospice and later AIDS services as well as a lifetime of teaching and program management.”

Thompson, who based his teaching approach on the work of Florence Nightingale, was also lauded for his generosity as a mentor to students.

Russell Tranbarger, RN, Ed.D., FAAN, did not set out to challenge gender barriers in nursing. When he first became a nurse, he attempted to blend in and not be noticed. However, he eventually concluded that in order to increase the number of men in nursing, he would have to become a leader, offering gender-specific support and mentoring to male nurses.

Tranbarger, who served as a medical-surgical nurse in the Army Nurse Corps, has held multiple executive positions throughout his long career, which has been noted for innovative nursing practice. He has played a major role in the AAMN and has held every one of the assembly’s offices. In 2007, he co-authored Men in Nursing: History, Opportunities and Challenges.             Tranbarger was the first recipient of the AAMN’s Luther Christman award and in 2012 was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame.

Brig. Gen. William T. Bester, MSN, NEA-BC, CRNA, served as the 21st chief of the Army Nurse Corps, the first man in the corps’ 100-year history to hold that position. While on active duty, Bester emphasized deployment occupational and environmental health issues and provided focused health risk assessment guidance to combat commanders, helping to save lives during U.S. operations in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

As chief, Bester also implemented changes to address the shortage of nurses both in the Army and in the civilian sector, including offering retention bonuses for military nurse anesthetists and surgical nurses. Thanks to his efforts, over 200 schools now offer nursing scholarships to officers of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Trotman received the AAMN’s Luther Christman award in 2005.

The number of men in nursing has increased over the years, particularly since 2000, but male nurses remain a small minority and many are still clustered in certain specialties. For example, more than 40 percent of nurse anesthetists are male, but the second-highest percentage of male nurses, in administration, is only 7.3 percent. Few men work as nurse educators or informatics specialists, two areas in which one might expect to find larger numbers of men.

These disparities remain despite the fact that across the board, more male nurses than female nurses have bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing areas and the percentages of men and women with bachelor’s or higher degrees in nursing are very similar.

Nonetheless, men in nursing have come a long way, thanks in no small part to the skill, courage and determination of these and other pioneers.


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