Giovanna Breu
June 30, 1980 12:00 PM

Nurses are the low men on the totem pole in the health-care system.” True, maybe, but low men? Everybody knows that “nurse” is synonymous with “female.” Tell that to Luther Christman, author of the statement above, a registered nurse himself and dean of the College of Nursing at Rush University in Chicago. Though he is one of only 27,000 males among the 1.4 million RNs in the U.S., Christman, 65, has been a leader in the campaign to upgrade the reputation, responsibilities and rewards of nursing—for both women and men. Barbara Nichols, president of the American Nurses’ Association, calls him “the burr under the saddle in nursing. He is helping the profession to think.”

Christman contends that “nursing was born in another culture, imported from Victorian England with no modifications. As things stand now, nurses don’t have that much to contribute to medical decision-making. They certainly are not innovators.” Only two-tenths of one percent of nurses have doctorates. (If in nursing sciences, it’s a D.N.Sc.) He has one in sociology and doesn’t mind being called “Dr. Christman.”

At Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, 75 percent of the 800 staff nurses are college graduates, and 165 of them have advanced degrees. When Christman took over as dean in 1972, only a fourth of the nurses had even attended college. He adds that many of the 1,400 schools of nursing in the U.S. are “inadequate.” He’d like to concentrate all those students, faculty and resources in 125 schools at the largest medical centers.

Among Christman’s other ideas is a strong recommendation that the same nurses treat a patient throughout his hospital stay. “What you have now,” he says, “is a mass of nurses taking care of a mob of patients. If one deliberately set out to invent a system that would give the poorest care, he would end up with team nursing.”

In some cases, Christman adds, nurses are more adept than doctors at treating patients. “Nurses are often trained in how to deal with the emotional life of patients, and this,” he says, “can be extremely useful, especially in the case of imported foreign doctors who can’t speak English.” He also argues that in small towns and inner cities, where the doctor shortage persists, nurses with doctorates could provide basic medical care.

Nursing needs to attract new personnel, Christman says. “There’s a brain drain. Years ago women had very limited career choices. Now they have so many choices that fewer go into nursing.” One solution that he naturally advocates is recruiting men.

He is his own best advertisement. The son of a Pennsylvania coal driller (two brothers and a sister died as infants), he left home to be a nurse’s aide in Philadelphia and was graduated from the Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing for Men in 1939. He turned down a chance to go to medical school, took his Ph.D. at Michigan State, taught nursing at the University of Michigan, and served as dean of nursing at Vanderbilt for five years before taking over at Rush. Christman’s wife, Dorothy, was a childhood sweetheart. They now live in suburban Homewood and are devoted bird watchers. Dorothy too became a nurse, as did their son; neither of their daughters took up the profession.

They aren’t the only ones Christman has not won over. “A lot of people.” says Jerome Lysaught, professor of medical education at the University of Rochester, “would like him to go in a corner and shut up. Luther sees the status quo as a challenge. He’s never been part of the old-girl club.”

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