Nursing Theory and Theorists

~Nursing care comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the ability to make someone feel physically comfortable by various means. Other times it is the ability to improve the body's ability to achieve or maintain health. But often it is an uncanny yet well-honed knack to see beyond the obvious and address, in some way, the deeper needs of the human soul.
~Donna Wilk Cardillo, A Daybook for Beginning Nurses

Nursing Theorists

Nursing has an amazing history. This page will be devoted to nursing theory and theorists. I have included the chosen videos so you can see these theorists, not necessarily for the content of the videos. As you will see and hear, many of these theorists did not necessarily set out to write a theory. Many times it developed while teaching students and/or practicing the art of nursing.

Nursing theories

Over the years nurses have attempted to define nursing. From these efforts, numerous theories have emerged. Many might consider these theories rather dry material, and in all honesty, this was probably my first conclusion as well. As I studied nursing theorists, I felt confused by the language. I was at a loss to see the purpose.

However, for any students grappling with these same feelings, I would like to encourage you. The more you study them, the more you appreciate these nurses who spent a great deal of time and effort defining our profession, for ultimately this is what delineates a science.

The first nursing theorist was Florence Nightingale.

*Nightingale (1860) was the first to note that nursing knowledge was separate and distinct from medical knowledge.Nightingale’s theory focused on providing fresh air, light, cleanliness, quiet and proper nutrition (Potter & Perry, 2009).

The domain of nursing describes the profession’s subject, concepts, values, and beliefs.It provides the means by which we can provide for client’s health across the spectrum.

A paradigm describes the domain using science, philosophy and theory.

*Nursing’s paradigm involves person, health, environment and nursing.

Person is the individual or community receiving care.
Health has different meanings for each client and is continuously changing.
Environment includes all possible conditions affecting the client.
Nursing is the diagnosis and treatment of human responses to health problems.
(Potter & Perry, 2009)

A phenomenon is an aspect of life that people experience.

Theories contain concepts, definitions, and proposals to explain phenomenon.

*Nursing theories can be grand, middle range, descriptive or prescriptive.

Grand theories are ambitious, abstract, broad and complex (McEwen & Wills, 2007).

Middle range theories are more precise when it comes to nursing practice but are also more limited (McEwen & Wills, 2007).*

Descriptive theories describe phenomenon

Prescriptive theories deal with nursing interventions.

*Remember the Nursing Paradigm has at its core the concepts of person, environment, nursing and health; each theorist will define these terms in his or her own way within their theory.

What’s the point in nursing theory?
Potter and Perry (2009) note that a nursing theory:
Identifies domains and goals of nursing
Provides knowledge
Guides research
Identifies research techniques used to validate nursing interventions
Formulates legislation
Formulates regulations
Develops curriculum plans
Establish criteria for measuring quality
Guide development of nursing care
Provide rationale and structure for nursing activities

Interdisciplinary theories are also utilized in nursing.
They explain phenomenon from other disciplines
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is utilized in nursing to prioritize care.
Developmental theories (Piaget, Erikson) are used to anticipate care needs.
Psychosocial theories (Grief, culture, learning) are used to predict care.

Open systems interact with the environment, while closed systems such as a test tube, do not.
Input such as the nursing process can affect a system.
Output is the result and feedback is evaluation.

Below is a great page which goes over various components of nursing theories.

Nursing Theory Presentation

Sister Calista Roy (1980, 1989):**
As a pediatric nurse, Roy was amazed at the ability of children to adapt to health issues. She created the adaption model and later expanded upon it to include adults. Many schools have used Roy's model as a framework in the preparation of their curriculum. (Jonhson & Webber 2010)
Sister Calista Roy’s adaptation theory focuses on helping the client adapt to health changes (Potter & Perry, 2009)
The Adaptation Model

Betty Neuman (1972)
Betty Neuman developed her systems theory in response to questions from graduate students about nursing variables. This model focuses on the response of the patient to environmental stressors. She emphasizes that an open system where elements of nursing practice interact. Clients can be groups, organizations, families, individuals or communities. She recognizes the patient as a whole but recognizes and values the parts.
(Johnson & Webber, 2010)
The Systems Model

Imogene M. King (1971)
Imogene King developed the theory of goal attainment. Nurses in almost every area of care have utilized this theory with success. Her theory emphasizes a transactional process where the client and the nurse mutually set goals and work toward achievement. This theory has been used as a basis for the development of subsequent family theories. (Johnson & Webber, 2010)
Theory of Goal Attainment

Other notable and prominent nursing theorists ~

Virginia Avenal Henderson ~
The first lady of nursing.
Henderson (1955, 1966) and Harmer (1955) define nursing as “assisting the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities that will contribute to the health, recovery, or a peaceful death that the individual would perform unaided if he or she had the necessary strength, will or knowledge” (Potter & Perry, 2009, p. 50). Her theory revolves around 14 basic human needs.
Nursing Definition

Jean Watson (1979, 1985, 1987)
Watson’s theory of human caring focuses on the nurse’s ability to provide compassion and empathy while helping the client attain and maintain health or die peacefully.
Theory of Human Caring

Rosemary Rizzo Parse
The Human Becoming Theory

Madeline Leininger (1991)
Leininger’s theory involves providing nursing care that is mindful of the client’s cultural needs.
Culture Care

Myra Estrine Levine
The Conservation Theory

Dorothea Orem (1971)
Dorothea Orem’s self care deficit theory focuses on the clients ability to perform self care and the nurses ability to increase the clients ability in this area.
Orem's Self Care Deficit Theory

Nola Pender
Health Promotion Theory

Hildegard E. Peplau (1952)
Peplau’s theory focused on the nurse/client relationship and mutual goals.
Interpersonal Relations

Martha E. Rogers (1970)
Martha Roger’s theory explains that the human being is an energy field existing and relating to the rest of the world and universe.
Science of Unitary Human Beings

Benner and Wrubel (1989)
Benner and Wrubel’s caring theory notes which interventions are successful so to guide future caregiving.

Patricia Benner
Skill Aquisition Model


Alligood,Martha Raile; Marriner Tomey, Ann. (1998). Nursing Theorists and Their Work (4th ed.). (L. Wilson, Ed.) St Louis: Mosby.

Eichelberger, Lisa Wright; Sitzman, Kathleen. (2004). Understanding the Work of Nurse Theorists : A Creative Beginning. Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Inc.

George, J. B. (Ed.). (1990). Nursing Theories: The Base for Professional Nursing Practice (3rd ed.). Norwalk, Connecticut: Appleton and Lange.

Hiott, D.B. (2010). A Grand Nursing Theory. Nurse's Watch. October 23, 2010 @

Johnson, B. & Webber, P. (2010). An Introduction to Theory and Reasoning in Nursing. (3rd edition) Tokyo: Wolters Kluwer: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
McEwen, Melanie; Wills, Evelyn. (2007). Theoretical Basis for Nursing (2nd ed.). (H. Kogut, E. Kors, & M. Zuccarini, Eds.) Philadelpia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Potter, P. A., & Perry, A. G. (2009). Theorectical foundations of nursing practice. In A. Hall & P. A. Stockert (Eds.), Fundamentals of nursing (7th ed., pp. 44-52). St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby Elsevier.