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Nursing’s Boundary Work: Theory Development and the Making of Nursing Science, ca. 1950–1980

Tobbell, Dominique, A.

doi: 10.1097/NNR.0000000000000251

Background Beginning in the late 1950s and intensifying through the 1960s and 1970s, nurse educators, researchers, and scholars worked to establish nursing as an academic discipline. These nursing leaders argued that the development of nursing theory was not only critical to nursing’s academic project but also to improving nursing practice and patient care.

Objectives The purpose of the article is to examine the context for the development of nursing theory and the characteristics of early theory development from the 1950s through the early 1980s.

Methods The methods used were historical research and analysis of the social, cultural, and political context of nursing theory development from the 1950s through the early 1980s. How this context influenced the work of nurse theorists and researchers in these decades was addressed.

Results The development of nursing theory was influenced by a context that included the increasing complexity of patient care, the relocation of nursing education from hospital-based diploma schools to colleges and universities, and the ongoing efforts of nurses to secure more professional autonomy and authority in the decades after World War II. In particular, from the 1960s through the early 1980s, nurse theorists, researchers, and educators viewed the establishment of nursing science, underpinned by nursing theory, as critical to establishing nursing as an academic discipline. To define nursing science, nurse theorists and researchers engaged in critical boundary work in order to draw epistemic boundaries between nursing science and the existing biomedical and behavioral sciences.

Discussion By the early 1980s, the boundary work of nurse theorists and researchers was incomplete. Their efforts to define nursing science and establish nursing as an academic discipline were constrained by generational and intraprofessional politics, limited resources, the gendered and hierarchical politics, and the complexity of drawing disciplinary boundaries for a discipline that is inherently interdisciplinary.

Dominique A. Tobbell, PhD, is Associate Professor and Director, Program in the History of Medicine, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Accepted for publication June 15, 2017.

The author would like to thank Patricia D’Antonio, Julie Fairman, Cindy Connolly, and Jennifer Gunn for several helpful discussions about the history of nursing theory; Lauren Klaffke for providing research assistance; and Patricia D’Antonio, Sue Henly, Nalini Jairath, Leslie Nicholl, Cindy Peden-McAlpine, Mary Sullivan, and Judi Vessey for providing invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this article. The author also thanks the archivists at the University of Minnesota Archives, UCLA Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago Special Collections and Archives, Case Western Reserve University Archives, Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Bates Center for the Study of Nursing History at the University of Pennsylvania, and Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University for providing research and archival assistance.

Editorial note: This paper was accepted under the editorship of Susan J. Henly.

The author has no conflicts of interest to report.

Corresponding author: Dominique A. Tobbell, PhD, Program in the History of Medicine, University of Minnesota, 510A Diehl Hall, 505 Essex St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (e-mail:

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