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History makers: nursing ambition

As Nursing Studies at Edinburgh marks 60 years of higher education leadership, we look back at some of the milestones and pioneers.

Nursing students

For six decades, Edinburgh has been at the centre of an international movement to raise the status and professionalism of nursing, beginning with the introduction of the first Nurse Teaching Unit at a British university in 1956.

The University rapidly followed this with the UK’s first nursing degree, the UK’s first nursing research unit, and Europe’s first Professor of Nursing Studies.

For every year from 2005 to 2015 Nursing Studies at Edinburgh was ranked top in the UK in the respected Guardian University guide’s league table for nursing and midwifery.

In 2016, a series of events, including an alumni conference, will mark Nursing Studies’ 60th celebrations.

In our interactive timeline, we mark out a selection of the many historic people and events that have helped establish Edinburgh’s reputation. We hope some of our milestones trigger fond memories, and we also hope you will suggest additions to our timeline, to create an ever-growing record of Nursing Studies at Edinburgh, built with the help of alumni who witnessed history being made first hand.

Help us build our timeline

We’d love to receive contributions to add to History Makers: nursing ambition. Tell us about the part you played in the history of Nursing Studies, or about a person, creation or event that deserves a place. Please use the comments box below, and we will add your recollections to the timeline where appropriate. Please also email us any photographs to be included in the timeline entries.

Email editor.edit@edit.ed.ac.uk


First British University to set up a nurse teaching unit

Nursing students 1950s

With support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Health Organization (WHO) the Nurse Teaching Unit was established within the Faculty of Arts in 1956, based initially in the top flat of 40a George Square. A year later it became known as the Nursing Studies Unit.

Elsie Stephenson appointed First Director of nursing studies in Europe

Elsie Stephenson
Elsie Stephenson

Described in the Journal of Advanced Nursing as “Britain’s nursing messiah of the 20th century”, Elsie Stephenson became the first Director of the Nursing Studies Unit in 1956. She is among a small number of international figures that have been instrumental in establishing the status of the nursing profession, who include the Scottish born Ethel Bedford Fenwick, who fought for a national register of nurses. Stephenson reportedly decided to become a nurse aged three after her father died in the influenza epidemic in 1919.


Integrated degree (five-year MA)

Under Elsie Stephenson’s leadership, the Nursing Studies Unit developed “a system of education and training for women who will later occupy positions of leadership”: a two-year certificate or diploma (depending on previous qualifications) in Advanced Nursing Education with Registered Nurse Teacher status. Stephenson was also determined to produce graduate practitioners and in 1960, a five-year integrated degree programme was introduced, with a four-week hospital placement. The degree was a pioneering move by Edinburgh, which was followed by several other universities across the UK during the 1960s.


International School of Advanced Nursing Studies founded

The International School was described as “the first of its kind in the world” by the Secretary of the University in 1962. It offered programmes in administration or education, social medicine, nursing and sciences applied to nursing to overseas students, who also took an elective subject and participated in hospital or community field studies. With financial backing from the WHO, the School promoted higher education for nurses on an international level and offered those from developing countries new opportunities. It also enabled the Nursing Studies Unit to establish connections with their nursing organisations around the world.


First nursing research unit at a British University

In 1971 the Nursing Research Unit was launched at Edinburgh, enabling research into hospital and community patient care, and into the organisational structure of nursing. While the research unit closed in 1994, its effect still resonates. The research strengths of Nursing Studies at Edinburgh were recently acknowledged in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, which judged 83 per cent of its research as world leading or internationally excellent.

First Professor of Nursing Studies in Europe

Margaret Scott Wright
Margaret Scott Wright

In 1968, Margaret Scott Wright, who had carried out research in the Department of Public Health and gained a PhD from the University of Edinburgh with the help of a Boots Scholarship, succeeded Elsie Stephenson as Director of the Nursing Studies Unit. In 1971, Scott Wright became the first Chair in Nursing Studies in Europe. She was also a member of the influential Briggs committee, set up by the UK government in the early 1970s, which recommended better degree preparation for nurses in order to “recruit people with innovative flair and leadership qualities”.


Nursing research scholarships for Edinburgh graduates

In 1978 a fund was set up with a bequest by Elsie Stephenson’s husband, William Gardner, to support nursing research, fellowships and activities to further the knowledge and practice of nursing. Since then many scholarships have been awarded to graduates of the University’s own Nursing honours degree programme to pursue doctoral studies. In recent years Gardner Scholarship students have undertaken research to develop dementia care strategies, improve the experiences of patients on psychiatric wards and better understand the information needs of cancer patients. These scholars, and others like them, not only develop their own academic careers and often go on to become leaders in their fields, but also make a significant contribution to nursing research and make a difference to patient care.


Professor Annie Altschul

Annie Altschul
Professor Annie Altschul

In 1983 the University marked its 400th anniversary. Nursing Studies joined in the festivities by inviting all of its graduates to enjoy a day in July of memorabilia, discussion groups and a lecture by Professor Annie Altschul, Chair of Nursing Studies at Edinburgh 1976–1983. A renowned writer and conference speaker on the subject of mental health, Professor Altschul was appointed CBE following her retirement in 1983, for her commitment to nursing. During her time at Edinburgh she instigated plans for an innovative joint degree programme, the MSc in Nursing and Education, which went on to be launched in 1986.


Online learning in Africa

Malawi group

Since 2010 Nursing Studies has been working closely with the University’s College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine to develop online undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for the Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN), at the University of Malawi. Edinburgh students, alumni and staff, led by Professors Pam Smith and Tonks Fawcett, have played a key role in the success of the online programmes at KCN. Dr Gladys Msiska (MSc Nursing 2008, PhD 2012) and Elizabeth Chodzaza, PhD candidate, have been involved in developing online resources. As a result of the collaboration between the universities of Edinburgh and Malawi, KCN is now a leader in online learning in sub-Saharan Africa, ultimately enhancing health care in the region.

2005 - 2015

Nursing Studies at Edinburgh best in the UK

Every year from 2005 to 2015 Nursing Studies at Edinburgh was ranked top in the UK in the respected Guardian University guide’s league table for nursing and midwifery. The 2015 study revealed that 97 per cent of students were satisfied with their degree programme overall, while 98.5 per cent were satisfied with the teaching.


Edinburgh to host Royal College of Nursing's International Research Conference

In April 2016 the Royal College of Nursing International Research Conference will be held in Edinburgh to celebrate 60 years of nursing at the University and 100 years of the RCN itself. The historic event will see the University’s Pam Smith, Professorial Fellow in Nursing Studies, deliver a keynote speech to the diverse range of clinical and academic researchers invited to attend the conference from around the world.

Join our 60th Celebrations

In November 2016 the University is holding an alumni conference to mark the 60th anniversary of Nursing Studies. The event will celebrate the leaps taken during each of the six decades of our history. To register your interest, email Laura Marshall.

Email l.marshall@ed.ac.uk