Hildegard E. Peplau – Psychiatric Nurse of the Century


“Nursing has made great progress from being an occupation to becoming a profession in the 20th. Century. As the 21st. Century approaches, further progress will be reported and recorded in Cyberspace – The Internet being one conduit for that. Linking nurses and their information and knowledge across borders – around the world – will surely advance the profession of nursing much more rapidly in the next century”

– Hildegard Peplau

Hildegard Elizabeth Peplau (September 1, 1909 – March 17, 1999) was an American nurse who is the only one to serve the American Nurses Association (ANA) as Executive Director and later as President. She became the first published nursing theorist since Florence Nightingale.

Peplau was well-known for her Theory of Interpersonal Relations, which helped to revolutionize the scholarly work of nurses. Her achievements are valued by nurses all over the world and became known to many as the Mother of Psychiatric Nursing” and the “Nurse of the Century.” 

Early Life

Peplau was born on September 1, 1909. She was raised in Reading, Pennsylvania by her parents of German descent, Gustav and Otyllie Peplau. She was the second daughter, having two sisters and three brothers. Though illiterate, her father was persevering while her mother was a perfectionist and oppressive. With her young age, Peplau’s eagerness to grow beyond traditional women’s roles was precise. She considers nursing was one of few career choices for women during her time. In 1918, she witnessed the devastating flu epidemic that greatly influenced her understanding of the impact of illness and death on families.


Hildegard Elizabeth Peplau
Hildegard Elizabeth Peplau

When the autonomous, nursing-controlled, Nightingale era schools came to an end in the early 1900s, schools then were handled by hospitals, and the so-called formal “book learning” was put down. Hospitals and physicians considered women in nursing as a source of free or inexpensive labor. Exploitation was very common by nurse’s employers, physicians and educational providers.

In 1931, she graduated in Pottstown, Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Peplau earned a Bachelor’s degree in interpersonal psychology in 1943 at Bennington College in Vermont. She studied psychological issues together with Erich Fromm, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, and Harry Stack Sullivan at Chestnut Lodge, a private psychiatric hospital in Maryland. Peplau held master’s and doctoral degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1947.

Career and Appointments

Hildegard Peplau - Pottstown Hospital School of Nursing Yearbook Photograph 1931
Hildegard Peplau – Pottstown Hospital School of Nursing Yearbook Photograph 1931

After graduating in Pennsylvania, she then worked as a staff nurse in her place and in New York City. A summer position as a nurse for the New York University summer camp led to a recommendation for Peplau to become the school nurse at Bennington College in Vermont, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in interpersonal psychology. Peplau’s lifelong work was largely focused on extending Sullivan’s interpersonal theory for use in nursing practice.

She served in the Army Nurse Corps and was assigned to the 312th Field Station Hospital from 1943-1945 in England, where the American School of Military Psychiatry was located. She met and worked with all the leading figures in British and American psychiatry. After the war, Peplau was at the table with many of these same men as they worked to reshape the mental health system in the United States through the passage of the National Mental Health Act of 1946.

Peplau was certified in psychoanalysis by the William Alanson White Institute of New York City. In the early 1950s, she developed and taught the first classes for graduate psychiatric nursing students at Teachers College. Peplau was a member of the faculty of the College of Nursing at Rutgers University from 1954 until her retirement in 1974. She was a professor emerita at the said university.

Hildegard Peplau 2
Peplau was known for her “Interpersonal Relations Theory.”

At Rutgers University, she created the first graduate level program for the preparation of clinical specialists in psychiatric nursing. She was a prolific writer and was equally well known for her presentations, speeches, and clinical training workshops. Peplau vigorously advocated that nurses should become further educated so they could provide truly therapeutic care to patients rather than the custodial care that was prevalent in the mental hospitals of that era.

During the 1950s and 1960s, she supervised summer workshops for nurses throughout the United States, mostly in state psychiatric hospitals. In these seminars, she taught interpersonal concepts and interviewing techniques, as well as individual, family, and group therapy. Peplau was an advisor to the the World Health Organization and was a visiting professor at universities in Africa, Latin America, Belgium, and throughout the United States. A strong advocate for graduate education and research in nursing, Peplau served as a consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Institute of Mental Health. She participated in many government policy making groups.

Hildegard Peplau 10

Peplau was devoted to nursing education at full length of her career. After her retirement from Rutgers, she served as a visiting professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium in 1975 and 1976. There she helped establish the first graduate nursing program in Europe.

She was the only nurse who served the ANA as executive director and later as president, she served two terms on the Board of the International Council of Nurses (ICN). And as a member of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, she actively contributed to the ANA by serving on various committees and task forces.

Hildegard Peplau in Pottstown Hospital School of Nursing Yearbook 1931
Hildegard Peplau in Pottstown Hospital School of Nursing Yearbook 1931

Her fifty-year career in nursing left an unforgettable mark on the field and on the lives of the mentally challenged in the United States. During the peak of her career, she became the founder of modern psychiatric nursing, an innovative educator, advocate for the mentally ill, proponent of advanced education for nurses, Executive Director and then President of the ANA and prolific author.


And just like any other famous personalities, her life was often marked with controversy, which she faced with boldness, prowess and conviction.

Interpersonal Relations Theory

Main article: Hildegard Peplau’s Interpersonal Relations Theory

Peplau, ANA Hall of Fame Inductee
Peplau, ANA Hall of Fame Inductee

In 1952, Peplau published her Theory of Interpersonal Relations that was influenced by Henry Stack Sullivan, Percival Symonds, Abraham Maslow, and Neal Elgar Miller.

Her theory emphasized the nurse-client relationship as the foundation of nursing practice. It gave emphasis on the give-and-take of nurse-client relationships that was seen by many as revolutionary. Peplau went on to form an interpersonal model emphasizing the need for a partnership between nurse and client as opposed to the client passively receiving treatment and the nurse passively acting out doctor’s orders.

The four components of the theory are: person, which is a developing organism that tries to reduce anxiety caused by needs; environment, which consists of existing forces outside of the person, and put in the context of culture; health, which is a word symbol that implies forward movement of personality and nursing, which is a significant therapeutic interpersonal process that functions cooperatively with other human process that make health possible for individuals in communities.

The nursing model identifies four sequential phases in the interpersonal relationship: orientation, identification, exploitation, and resolution.

It also includes seven nursing roles: Stranger role, Resource role, Teaching role, Counseling role, Surrogate role, Active leadership and Technical expert role.


Interpersonal Relations In Nursing: A Conceptual Frame of Reference for Psychodynamic Nursing
Interpersonal Relations In Nursing

Some of Hildegard Peplau’s works include: Interpersonal Relations In Nursing: A Conceptual Frame of Reference for Psychodynamic Nursing, Interpersonal Theory in Nursing Practice: Selected Works of Hildegard E. Peplau, Basic principles of patient counseling: Extracts from two clinical nursing workshops in psychiatric hospitals, A Glance Back in Time: An article from: Nursing Forum, On Semantics (psychiatric nursing): An article from: Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, The Psychiatric Nurse–Accountable? To Whom? For What?: An article from: Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, and Psychotherapeutic Strategies: An article from: Perspectives in Psychiatric Care.

Her book on her conceptual framework, Interpersonal Relations in Nursing, was completed in 1948. Publication took four additional years because it was groundbreaking for a nurse to contribute this scholarly work without a co-authoring physician.

Interpersonal Theory in Nursing Practice: Selected Works of Hildegard E. Peplau
Interpersonal Theory in Nursing Practice: Selected Works of Hildegard E. Peplau

Peplau’s original book from 1952 has been translated into nine languages and in 1989 was reissued in Great Britain by Macmillan of London. In 1989, Springer published a volume of selected works of Peplau from previously unpublished papers. Her ideas have, indeed, stood the test of time. The archives of her work and life are housed at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.

Awards and Honors

Peplau was acknowledged with numerous awards and honors for her contributions to nursing and held 11 honorary degrees. She was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from universities including: Alfred, Duke, Indiana, Ohio State, Rutgers, and the University of Ulster in Ireland.


She was named one of “50 Great Americans” in Who’s Who in 1995 by Marquis. She was also elected fellow of the American Academy of Nurse and Sigma Theta Tau, the national nursing honorary society.

Peplau, universally regarded as the "Mother of Psychiatric Nursing"
Peplau, universally regarded as the “Mother of Psychiatric Nursing”

In 1996, the American Academy of Nursing honored Peplau as a “Living Legend.” She received nursing’s highest honor, the “Christiane Reimann Prize,” at the ICN Quadrennial Congress in 1997. This award is given once every four years for outstanding national and international contributions to nursing and healthcare. And in 1998, the ANA inducted her into its Hall of Fame.


On March 17, 1999, Peplau died peacefully in her sleep at home in Sherman Oaks, California. She is survived by Dr. Leitia Anne Peplau and her husband, Dr. Steven Gordon, and their son, David Gordon of Sherman Oaks, CA; sister, Bertha Reppert (Byron), Mechanicsburg, PA; brother, John D. Forster (Dorethy), Reading, PA; niece, Dr. Carolynn Sears (Phillip) and children, Jessica and Jacob Sears, Pound Ridge, NY; niece Majorie Reppert, Jim Thorpe, PA; niece, Nancy Reppert, Mechanicsburg, PA; niece, Susanna Reppert (David Brill), Mechanicsburg, PA; niece, Karen Bently (William) and son, William, Sudbury, MA; and nephew, Carl Peplau, Hopewell Junction, NY.

The family requested that memorial contributions be made to the Peplau Research Fund through the American Nurses Foundation.

See Also


  1. Hildegard Peplau (1909-1999) 1998 Inductee. (n.d.). . Retrieved July 1, 2014, from http://www.nursingworld.org/HildegardPeplau
  2. Sills, G. (n.d.). Hildegard Peplau. Nursing Theorist Homepage. Retrieved January 3, 2014, from http://publish.uwo.ca/~cforchuk/peplau/obituary.html

Further Reading

External Links

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