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Remembering Claire M. Fagin, PhD

January 21, 2024

Claire Fagin was a person of firsts. She was the first child psychiatric nurse to earn a doctorate. She is widely credited with being the first women to lead an Ivy League institution. And, in 1985, she became the first nurse to serve as the 59th president of the American Orthopsychiatric Association (Ortho – renamed in 2016 as the Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice). She was a trailblazing psychiatric nurse and one of the 20th century’s most influential nursing leaders. As her colleague, Dr. Linda H. Aiken has said, “it is really hard to identify anyone who has had a larger impact on nursing than Claire” (Dean 2024).

Fagin began to distinguish herself when she was studying for her doctorate in the mid 1960s. Her dissertation was on “rooming in,” the idea of parents staying with their child during the child’s hospitalization. Fagin’s own experience of being turned away from the hospital during her young son’s hospitalization led to her groundbreaking research demonstrating the importance to patients and nurses of allowing parents to stay with their children. Her research led to changes in hospital practices nationwide. By 1978, 62 percent of hospitals allowed 24-hour visiting in pediatric units. She is considered to be one of the founders of family centered nursing care.

After working in pediatric psychiatric nursing in hospitals, she returned to school for a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing at Columbia University. As a consultant to the National League for Nursing, she subsequently helped to define the functions and qualifications for psychiatric nursing and later helped to develop the pediatric psychiatric unit at the National Institute of Health’s Clinical Center.

In addition to her contributions to nursing, Dr. Fagin was an educator. As noted in her profile in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (AJO), Dr. Fagin built upon her interest in pediatrics, children, adolescence, and mental health to change all of nursing education. In 1969, she developed a new baccaleureate nursing program at Lehman College, CUNY, to prepare nurses for primary care practice. This was the first program of its type. It was interdisciplinary, including nursing, social work, and medical administration. As noted in AJO, “the synthesis of these contributions led to a new creative plateau that permitted her to deal with the critical health policies of our nation. The focus of her concern is not only the health care system but its most important element — the impact of the system on the patient” (p.165).

The American Orthopsychiatric Association and its new President, Claire Fagin, deserve each other…only an individual who has lived the ideals of an organization and pioneered its growing frontiers deserves to be its leader…in Claire Fagin, Ortho has a leader who not only can nurse our wounds, but develop our aims and embody our ideals.

American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(2), 1985

In 1977, she joined the University of Pennsylvania as Dean of the School of Nursing and in 1993, she was named interim president of the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn Nursing, she continued to develop landmark education and research programs. In 1980, she established the first privately-funded center for nursing research in the country, which is still among the top nursing schools nationwide for federal research funding. In 1993, as interim president of the University of Pennsylvania, she addressed contention and racial tension at Penn and a loss of major donors by helping to re-build the Penn community. She worked with the university’s Commission on Strengthening the Community to engage faculty, staff, and students around free speech, race relations, and sexual harassment.

In 1985, Claire Fagin became the 59th president of Ortho and the first nurse to serve as president. Prior to becoming president, she had served on the Ortho’s Board of Directors and she had been appointed to the Editorial Board of AJO. As note in AJO, “her extraordinary range of achievements are due in great part to her willingness to be broad and yet bold at the same time” (p. 165). In the year in which she was nominated to run for President of Ortho, she was selected as one of the first two-distinguished scholars of the American Nurses Foundation.

One of the unique and uniting characteristics of our organization is the ability to combine knowledge with our quest for social action and reform.

American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 56(3), 1986.

As president of Ortho, Dr. Fagin quickly set forth a research agenda for the organization. She stressed the importance of establishing research priorities and programs that will lead to strengthening the knowledge base for intervention, interaction, and advocacy. She argued that Ortho’s political agenda was particularly crucial as an overarching structure for all aspects of the research agenda. “As an interdisciplinary organization, not representing the many individual fiefdoms of the field but representative of it, we are one of the few groups that can hope to overcome the bureaucratic rigidities and self-orientation which many of us find, perhaps even welcome, in our guild groups. Thus, our political agenda must continue to thrive” (p. 346).


Brown, B. S. (1985). Claire M. Fagin, PhD. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55(2), 164-165.

Dean, C. (Jan 17, 2024). Claire M. Fagin, Powerful Advocate for Nurses and Nursing, Dies at 97. New York Times.

Fagin, C.M. (1986). The research agenda. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 56(3), 340-346.

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