Guardian of the Discipline
Thank you to Sharon Tucker, PhD, RN, FAAN
and Christina Nyirati, RN, PhD
for their contributions to this post (see bios below).
Grayce M. Sills, circa 1986 while serving as Acting Dean of the Ohio State University School of Nursing. Photo by Charlene Eldridge Wheeler, featured for month of April, 1987 “Everyday Sheroes” Calendar
Grayce Sills, RN. PhD, FAAN, is widely recognized as a “pioneer . . . and supporter . . . of psychiatric mental health nursing . . . a champion for improving care for the chronically mentally ill . . . [and] a pioneer in interdisciplinary collaboration among health care professionals” (Parrish, 2016, pp. 155-156).
Grayce Sills was born in Bremen, a small town in southeast Ohio. She was raised by her grandparents and extended family from the age of 2 years, after her mother died. Grayce began her undergraduate education with a liberal arts concentration at Ohio University in Athens, close to her family home. Following her sophomore year, Dr. Sills took a federally funded training job in New York to prepare as a psychiatric aide, hoping to raise enough money to complete her college degree. The psychiatric nurses impressed Grayce with their specialized skill. She was particularly impressed by the head nurse, Betty Oliver, who seemed more able than the physicians to soothe and comfort patients by just being present. Inspired, she began her nursing education at Rockland State Hospital School of Nursing in Orangeburg, New York, where she received her diploma in 1950. Grayce then attended the baccalaureate completion program at Teachers College Columbia University in New York from 1950 to 1951 but did not complete the program.
While at Teachers College, Grayce met Hildegard Peplau, just as Dr. Peplau was completing what many consider the first middle range nursing theory, Interpersonal relations in nursing (Peplau, 1952). Many year later Dr. Sills shared stories about the Peplau seminars with The Ohio State University Ph.D. nursing students who were grappling with theory; Dr. Sills admitted to also being initially confounded by Dr. Peplau’s theoretical inquiries. Timidly curious, yet somewhat intimidated, Grayce left New York to return to her Ohio home. She finally received a baccalaureate nursing degree from the University of Dayton in 1956. Fortunately for our discipline in general and psychiatric nursing in particular, Dr. Peplau was invited to present a nursing workshop at Dayton State Hospital in 1957, where Grayce was working. Explaining how her perspective then shifted profoundly, she stated:
“I owe [a large debt to] Hildegard E. Peplau for bringing me a new perspective, a new approach, a theoretically based foundation for nursing practice, for therapeutic work with patients in those problematic settings. Imagine the excitement of making sense out of a patient’s hallucinatory experience through collaborative work! Imagine the joy that came from discovering that a delusion could be dealt with and satisfactorily eliminated through effective verbal work with patients, a new day had dawned! Theory was used to guide nursing practice. Theory was tested in the real world of practice.” (Sills, 1978, p. 122)
Dr. Sills earned a master’s degree in sociology from The Ohio State University (OSU) in 1964, and began teaching in the OSU School of Nursing that same year. She completed a PhD in sociology, also from OSU, in 1968. At that time, the PhD in Nursing was not yet offered. Dr. Sills described herself as a “tourist” in the discipline of sociology, grateful for a conceptual perspective complementary to nursing, but convinced that nursing knowledge was necessary for nursing practice. With this conviction, Dr. Sills made major contributions to the nursing programs at OSU, including a graduate clinical nurse specialist program in psychiatric mental health nursing. She also chaired the Department of Family and Community Nursing and served as Director of Graduate Studies.
As the first OSU Nursing Acting Dean, by 1985 Dr. Sills had managed to re-position Nursing in the academic structure of OSU by establishing the College of Nursing with its own budget and self-governance. This, she believed, was the necessary foundation for creating a community of nurse scholars who would advance nursing education and nursing scholarship. Self-governance, she reasoned, would contribute significantly to the power of nursing to develop the scholarly discipline, as well as the practice profession of nursing. Her conviction that borrowed knowledge from established disciplines was useful to nursing – although that knowledge was not nursing knowledge – influenced her vision for the Ph.D. Program in Nursing at OSU, established in 1985.
Dr. Sills retired from OSU College of Nursing in 1993 as Emeritus Professor. She holds the rare distinction of receiving three awards from OSU: a Distinguished Teaching Award, a Distinguished Service Award, and an honorary doctorate in public service. She also was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Indiana University and from Fairfield University.
Dr. Sills’ contributions expanded beyond OSU. She chaired the Study Committee on Mental Health Services for Ohio and, in 1986, was chosen as a Woman of Achievement by the Columbus YWCA. As a past chair of the OSU Hospitals Board of Trustees, she was instrumental in gaining board support for magnet hospital status, achieved in 2005. Beyond Ohio, she held visiting professorships at several universities throughout her career and provided international consultation for community based mental health nursing in Italy, Japan, and South Korea. Dr. Sills was a founder of American Psychiatric Nursing Association and the American Nurses’ Association (ANA) Commission on Human Rights. She was elected to the American Academy of Nursing (AAN), and in 1999, was designated as an AAN Living Legend. She received several other awards, including the ANA Hildegard Peplau Award.
Dr. Sills record of scholarly work includes more than 60 journal articles and book chapters. One of many innovations put forth by Dr. Sills in the idea of nurse corporations. She explained,
“The conceptual key to the corporation proposal is that it changes the fundamental nature of the social contract. The professional nurse would no longer be an employee of the hospital or agency, but rather a member of a professional corporation which provides nursing services to patients and clients on a fee‑for-service basis. . . . Such a change in the nature of the social contract is, it seems to me, fundamentally necessary for the survival of nursing as a profession rather than an occupational group of workers employed by other organizations.” (Sills, 1983, p. 573)
Inasmuch as nurse corporations would operate on a fee-for-service basis, the corporation would determine the costs of nurses’ work, which changes the economics of practice in a profound way. Furthermore, nurse corporations are a solution to the problem of collective bargaining by nurses, such that contracts are between the nurse corporation, which is a professional entity rather than a union, and individuals or organizations (Sills, 1983).
Christina Nyirati recalls that when she was a student at OSU several years ago, Dr. Sills had championed nursology as the name for our discipline. Peggy Chinn recalls that at an American Nurses’ Conferene of many years ago, Dr. Sills was among the first nurse leaders to propose that the “doctor’s orders” be changed to the “physician’s prescriptions,” to serve as a parallel to the nurse’s prescriptions. ”One wonders what Dr. Sills now would think about the“nursologist’s prescriptions” or the “patient’s self-directed prescriptions”?
Given Dr. Sills’ substantial contributions to our discipline, it is not surprising that she was “affectionately referred to as ‘Amazing Grace’ by everyone who knew her” (Parrish, 2016, p. 166). See this video of an interview of Dr. Sills by Jeanne Clement:
Parrish, E., (2016). Remembering a pioneer of psychiatric mental health nursing. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 52, 155-156.
Peplau, H.E. (1952). Interpersonal relations in nursing: A conceptual frame of reference for psychodynamic nursing. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. [Reprinted 1989. London, UK: Macmillan Education Ltd. Reprinted 1991. New York, NY: Springer.] (Translated into nine languages) .
Sills G. (1978). Hildegard E. Peplau: Leader, practitioner, academician, scholar and theorist. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 16, 122–128.
Sills, G. M. (1983). The role and function of the clinical nurse specialist. In N.L. Chaska (Ed.), The nursing profession: A time to speak (pp. 563–579). New York: McGraw‑Hill.
About our guest Contributors
Christina Nyirati, PhD, RN –
Professor, Department of Nursing, Chair and BSN Program Director, College of Arts & Sciences, Heritage University, Toppenish, WA.
Grayce Sills became Christina’s mentor when she was admitted to the first OSU PhD nursing cohort in 1985 after several years of experience as a family nurse practitioner (FNP). At their initial meeting Dr. Sills questioned whether, as an FNP, Christina had disavowed her nursing knowledge. Dr. Sills ventured Christina would have to work a little harder than her classmates to question her assumptions about the Discipline of Nursing. Christina recalls Dr. Sills spoke be-musingly about Drs. Paterson and Zderad, Sills’ former OSU faculty colleagues, who had referred to themselves as Nursologists. At a recent American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) Dean’s meeting, Christina reminisced with erstwhile PhD classmate, Dr. Janet Fulton, (now Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at Indiana University-Purdue University) about their seminars with Dr. Sills, who, with a twinkle in her eye, challenged the doctoral students to ponder nursing as a discipline rather than an applied discipline, and to consider Nursology the organizing concept for our discipline.
Throughout her career Dr. Nyirati has endeavored to fulfill her mentor’s admonition. When she became the founding director of the FNP program at OSU she integrated nursing theory with primary care concepts into the curriculum. Dr. Nyirati challenges FNP educators to consider nursing knowledge as the essential component of the FNP program as the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) evolves and becomes requisite for entry into advanced practice [See article by Nyirati, C. M., Denham, S. H., Raffle, I., & Ware, J. (2012). Journal of Family Nursing, 18, 378-408).
Now as BSN program director at Heritage University on the Yakama Reservation in Washington State, Christina honors Grayce’s legacy as she prepares nurses in a curriculum faithful to the epistemic foundation of nursing. BSN students develop their reflective practices from The Fundamental Patterns of Knowing in Nursing (See article by Carper, B. A. (1978). Advances in Nursing Science, 1(1), 13-24.). Before her death in 2016, Dr. Sills used to Skype with the first cohort of Heritage BSN students, reminding them to recognize and use their powerful nursing knowledge to correct the inequities in their communities.
Sharon Tucker, PhD, RN, APRN-CNS, F-NAP, FAAN –
Grayce Sills Endowed Professor in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing, College of Nursing; Translational/Implementation Research Core Director, Helene Fuld Health Trust National Institute for EBP; Nurse Scientist, Wexner Medical Center, The Ohio State University
Faculty and staff at OSU are privileged to continue to advance the work of the amazing Dr. Sills through an endowed professorship established in her name by a generous gift from Dr. Sills and her family. Dr. Tucker was hired in 2017 as the Grayce Sills Endowed Professor of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing. She has practiced, taught, and conducted research in behavioral and mental health interventions and outcomes for decades. She was recognized in 1997 with an Award for Excellence in Research by the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, at which time Dr. Sills was recognized with the Psychiatric Nurse of the Year Award.
Dr. Tucker seeks to advance Dr. Sills’ work in promoting independent nursing practice (she is a board certified Advanced Practice Psychiatric Clinical Nurse Specialist), teaching interpersonal and health coaching skills, studying mental health assessment strategies and behavior change interventions, and advocating for individuals living with mental illness who are underserved and undertreated.