Donna Diers, a champion of nursing research and former dean of the Yale School of Nursing, died of cancer on Saturday. She was 74.
An early advocate for the acceptance of nursing as an academic profession, Diers authored the first textbook on nursing research and transformed the Yale School of Nursing into a leading research institution during her tenure as dean from 1972 to 1985. Diers is credited with stretching the boundaries of the field of nursing to encompass scholarly research in addition to clinical practice, and the American Academy of Nursing named her a “Living Legend” — the highest honor bestowed by the organization — in 2010 for her unparalleled impact on the profession. Diers’ friends, students and colleagues remember her as a captivating storyteller, prolific writer, caring mentor and inspirational figurehead within the field.
“I think that being a legend is understating it,” said Sharon Eck Birmingham NUR ’99, who was the first doctoral student to study under Diers. “She probably made as much, if not more, impact on the profession of nursing in modern times as Florence Nightingale did.”
During her time as dean, Diers forged close relationships with her students, many of whom went on to become research nurses, rather than clinical nurses, either at Yale or elsewhere. Former students said she “demystified” the process of collecting, managing and interpreting data, and inspired them to emulate her scholarly approach to nursing.
Current Yale Nursing School Dean Margaret Grey praised Diers for inspiring her to pursue a doctorate in nursing at Columbia and to begin a career in academia as a research nurse.
“That was the beginning for me of my career as a nurse scientist,” Grey said. “I fell in love with the research here.”
Diers’ book, Research in Nursing Practice, was the first definitive text on nursing research, former students said. Diers was able to explain the historical trajectory of nursing and “how we’re supposed to take it and move it forward, basing our practice on evidence and not just tradition,” Susan Sullivan-Bolyai NUR ’99 said.
Marjorie Funk NUR ’84 SPH ’92 GRD ’92, a Nursing School professor and former student of Diers, said Diers had a profound influence on key figures in the school today. Research scientist Dena Schulman-Green said even members of the school who have not worked directly with Diers “have the greatest respect” for the influence she has had on the field of nursing.
Though former students said Diers was a “very private person” and informed few people of her illness, Maureen O’Keefe Doran NUR ’71 said Diers was still directing classes over Skype from her hospital bed this winter — a testament to her devotion to teaching.
Diers helped the School of Nursing secure grants and scholarships from the National Institute of Mental Health and “led the quest” to make the school a first-class graduate institution, Doran said. She added that Diers used humor in her speeches and writings to advocate for increased respect for nurses and to raise awareness about their crucial role in building the modern hospital system.
In the 1970s, Diers was part of a group led by Yale professors Robert Fetter and John Thompson that invented the diagnosis-related group system for classifying hospital cases, which is used to determine how much Medicare reimburses hospitals, Birmingham said.
Born in 1938 and raised in Sheridan, Wyo., Diers attended the University of Denver, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 1960. After receiving a Master of Science in Nursing from Yale in 1964, Diers began teaching as an instructor in psychiatric nursing at Yale, before continuing her studies in Australia.
Diers owned a house on Martha’s Vineyard and collected small dollhouse-sized items to make miniature versions of the rooms of Florence Nightingale’s house as a hobby, Birmingham said. Diers donated these model rooms to the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing’s annual silent auction, Birmingham said, adding that the miniature rooms often fetched thousands of dollars, which were then donated to nursing research.
Diers is survived by her brother, Jim.