Rhetaugh Etheldra Graves Dumas was an esteemed nursing “leader with vision, insight, and wise counsel who had a major impact in the advancement of nursing, health care, and academic programs.“ She was inspired to become a nurse because of her mother, who wanted to be a nurse but could not because schools of nursing did not admit African American women at that time. Dr. Dumas earned her BSN degree from Dillard University in New Orleans in 1951, Her nursing career began as a school nurse in the segregated schools of Natchez, Mississippi. With a strong determination to improve the welfare of others, she went on to earn her master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from Yale University in 1961. In1975, when nursing doctorates were rare, she earned her doctoral degree in social psychology from the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities (now known as Union Institute & University).
Throughout her career, she was a strong advocate for Black women and Black nurses, urging baccalaureate nursing education for all. Dr. Dumas was the “first” in many dimensions related to the development of nursing as a discipline. She was the first nurse to conduct clinical experiments that evaluated nursing practices. She was the first African-American to be named as a Dean of Nursing, University of Michigan (1981). She was subsequently appointed as Vice-Provost of the University, serving until her retirement.
Most notably,, she was the first woman and first nurse to serve as deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health, from 1979-1981. As President of the American Academy of Nursing (1987-89), she led the establishment of Expert Panels to develop strong policy statements based on nursing expertise. She began her presidency with the motto of “many voices, one vision,” calling on expansion of the Academy as a major force in shaping the future of healthcare. Her vision for the Expert Panels was a way she saw to substantially engage nurse scholars in bringing nursing perspectives and expertise to the policy-making table. Today over 20 Expert Panels of the Academy provide vital leadership driving research and policy that is grounded in the values of the discipline of nursing.
I had the distinct privilege of working with Dr. Dumas as a member of the Board of Directors of the Academy when she was President. Her clarity, strength of vision, and unrelenting commitment to nursing as a discipline remains as a major influence that inspired me, as a young scholar, to never waiver from a commitment to the very best that nursing offers in the service of others.
* Portions of this post originally appeared on the NurseManifest blog