Profiles in Nursing

Rosemary Ellis, Nursing Theorist

Taking a holistic approach to the treatment of disease

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
to Save

Rosemary Ellis, Nursing TheoristRosemary Ellis was a prominent nursing theorist with strong roots in California. For many years, she was part of the ongoing discussion of whether nursing theory was based on a science of its own or if it was derivative and reflective of other bodies of knowledge.

Ellis was born in Berkeley, Calif., the daughter of a banker. Her interest in nursing grew out of the example of one of her uncles, who lived with the family while in medical school. Ellis earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley and in 1944 completed a nursing degree at UC San Francisco. Her first job was as head nurse, supervisor and assistant superintendent of nurses at the UC Hospital in San Francisco. She also served for a short period with the occupation forces in postwar Japan.

In 1953, Ellis earned an M.A. in nursing education from the University of Chicago and shortly thereafter a Ph.D. in human development. Afterward, she became a professor at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University. Her tenure was marred by a stroke that left her with a complete left hemiplegia, but that did not really slow her down. With the assistance of a leg brace, she continued to teach and travel until her retirement in 1986. She visited Japan and Canada as a consultant in nursing research and was widely published, including a first-person account of her difficulties following the stroke.

The Head Serves the Heart
Ellis’s approach to nursing education was unique. For her, the ultimate goal of nursing care was beneficence, or doing good for other human beings, and knowledge was critical to deliberate beneficence. “Beneficence,” she wrote, “can come only with the artful, ethical use of knowledge.”

Ellis believed that nursing knowledge should be obtained through various means, and she identified four different types of knowledge for nursing inquiry: scientific knowledge (for example, biology and anatomy), historical knowledge (the context of illness and the difference between disease and wellness), nursing philosophy (ethics and empathy) and nursing technology (apparatuses and their effectiveness).

Definition was key, and she admonished nursing researchers to delay validation until whatever they were studying was clearly defined. She felt that terms like “environment,” “nursing” and “health” needed to have consistent definitions before they could be used to extend nursing’s body of knowledge.

Ellis also felt, as she once wrote, that “[n]ursing requires the recognition of the inseparability and interdependence of many factors.” She believed that nurses needed to take a holistic approach, not seeing a disease in isolation, but in terms of its relationship to the whole person and all parts of his or her environment. Nurses could not work effectively with just one organ system or one dimension of a patient’s psychological makeup. Rather, Ellis believed — harking back to Florence Nightingale — that the nurse must always must see and understand the broader context.

Constantly Evolving
In Ellis’s view, the professional nurse is not just a user of given theory, but a developer, tester and expander of theory. As she wrote in the American Journal of Nursing in 1969, “This exploration of theory is not for the purpose of scholarship; it is an essential for intelligent practice” (AJN vol. 69, no. 7).

A perfect summation of Ellis’ philosophy comes from her article on sensory deprivation in the ICU, “Unusual Sensory and Thought Disturbances after Cardiac Surgery,” published in the American Journal of Nursing (Vol. 72, No. 11, 1972): “What is needed are attempts to make theory explicit, with tests of theories of nursing in the practice of nursing, and with further development of theories emerging from the practice of nursing.”   

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

This article is from

You might also like

Maria Stromberger (1898-1957)  Angel of Auschwitz
Ellen Savage (1912-1985), Australian Wartime Hero

Profiles in Nursing

Ellen Savage (1912-1985), Australian Wartime Hero

She survived the sinking of a hospital ship and rallied a nation at war

Nathalie Bucknall (1895-1959), From St. Petersburg to Hollywood

Profiles in Nursing

Nathalie Bucknall (1895-1959), From St. Petersburg to Hollywood

Nursing during the Bolshevik Revolution, and beyond

View all Profiles in Nursing Articles