Afaf I. Meleis, PhD, DrPS(hon), FAAN, LL
Generations of nurses throughout the world are changing the face of health care and empowering women to speak up, particularly women who are burdened by societal inequities, multiplicity of roles, differential compensation and rewards, and the gender divide. These nurses have one thing in common — Afaf I. Meleis is their mentor.
The internationally renowned nurse-researcher and medical sociologist has mentored hundreds of students and faculty from Egypt, where she was born, Thailand, Sweden, Korea, Colombia, the United States, and countless other countries. By helping these nurses develop and advance knowledge, they are driving changes in education, practice, research, policy, and care models in their countries and around the world.
Through her mentoring and research, Dr. Meleis advanced transitions theory, which focuses on assisting nurses in facilitating patients’, families’ and communities’ healthy transitions. Her work has been translated globally into policy, research, and evidence-based practice.
“By giving voice to and empowering nurses and marginalized, invisible women we can achieve quality, evidence based and humanistic care for populations globally.”
PhD – University of California, Los Angeles – 1968
MA – University of California, Los Angeles – 1966
MS – University of California, Los Angeles – 1964
BS – University of Alexandria, Egypt – 1961
A Community of Empowered Faculty
As dean of Penn Nursing from 2002-2014, Dr. Meleis focused on developing a community of faculty that was empowered to innovate—and dedicated to making an impact on global healthcare. Recruiting and mentoring young faculty was one of her priorities along with establishing research centers in critical areas and nurturing a culture for advancing scholarship and policy changes.
Making a Difference through Education
Inspired by her mother, a nurse and educator who established graduate programs for nurses in the Middle East, Dr. Meleis knew that if she wanted to make a difference, she needed the right education. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Alexandria, the first nursing baccalaureate program in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. She came to the United States on a Rockefeller scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned an MS in nursing. Deciding to pursue a career as a scholar and scientist, Dr. Meleis stayed on at UCLA and enrolled in the doctoral program medical and social psychology.
After earning her PhD, Dr. Meleis spent the next 34 years as a faculty member at the University of California, first in Los Angeles and then in San Francisco. When the University of California, San Francisco introduced one of the country’s first PhD programs in nursing in 1984, she became a strong proponent for these programs, which faced stiff opposition at the time. To this day, she consults on doctoral education for nurses nationally and internationally. Dr. Meleis honed her leadership skills as assistant dean and then as a dean who established a nursing school in Kuwait, and by becoming a visiting professor in many universities around the globe.
Facilitating Nursing Research and Healthy Transitions
While at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Meleis published an award-winning book that is used by faculty and nursing doctoral students worldwide and continued her work on transitions theory. Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress, first published in 1985, provides an historical perspective on nursing through a feminist post-colonial analyses of the forces that are driving nursing care, education, research, and administration. In the book she provides frameworks for developing analytic skills and integrating knowledge that defines the discipline of nursing. Dr. Meleis is working on the sixth edition of the book.
Dr. Meleis has used transitions theory to acknowledge the role of nurses as they help people go through health/illness and life transitions. Like Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress, nursing faculty and students use this work to develop research programs. Dr. Meleis, and the nurses she has mentored, have used transitions theory to study many types of transitions such as the immigration transition, the transition of caregivers, the transition of patients with cardiovascular events, the transition to motherhood, and the menopausal transition, as well as the transition of women toward integrating their roles while enhancing their wellbeing.
Advancing the Nursing Profession as Dean
In 2002, leaders at the University of Pennsylvania recruited Dr. Meleis and invited her to lead the School of Nursing. In her almost 13 years of deanship, the school acquired the tagline and the reputation of, Care to Change the World. Faculty voice, leadership, and empowerment made an impact at the university level, as well as globally, and the school recruited stellar faculty and students. Dr. Meleis invested in and cultivated a culture of innovation and scholarship that addressed emerging health care challenges, facilitated multidisciplinary and global partnerships, and supported the local community.
During a university-wide campaign Dr. Meleis was able to raise an unprecedented $109.3 million to meet the school’s strategic goals. Among these goals were the establishment of several research centers. Two centers, in particular reflect her passion and scholarship: the NewCourtland Center for Transitions and Health and the Center for Global Women’s Health. Through these endowed centers, she facilitated and supported the faculty’s work, scholarship, and impact on health care policies. For example, research conducted through the NewCourtland Center for Transitions and Health on the importance of transition care provided the evidence for legislators, insurance companies, and health institutions to implement and support care during health and illness transitions. Today, the center focuses its work on meeting the complex health care needs of chronically ill adults, especially frail older adults and their family caregivers.
The Center for Global Women’s Health is an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students who collaborate on scholarship, education, and clinical practices to enhance women’s health globally. Within a health equity framework and with a focus on social justice, faculty research focuses on safety from violence and harm; equity, empowerment, and advocacy; and health promotion and disease prevention. This center creates dialogues to inform policies designed to improve women’s lives.
By the time Dean Meleis returned to the faculty in 2014, the school had tripled its endowment, increased student enrollment by 57 percent, launched, a new undergraduate curriculum to integrate theory, practice, and technology, and established a masters program for nurse anesthetists. The school’s building was fully renovated, brought into the 21st century, and named Claire M. Fagin Hall. The school was also well positioned to compete for and receive substantial foundation and government financial support for advanced practice and PhD education. Foundations such as Robert Wood Johnson supported several major initiatives. U.S. News and World Report ranked the school’s graduate programs # 1.
Continuing Scholarship on Transitions and Women’s Health
While she was dean, Dr. Meleis published three books, edited two editions of Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress, and published 38 articles, chapters, and editorials. One of those books was Transitions Theory: Middle Range and Situation Specific Theories in Nursing Research and Practice (2010). A collection of more than 50 articles published from 1975 through 2007, the book covers developmental, situational, health/illness, and organizational transitions, as well as congruent nursing therapeutics, and it includes Dr. Meleis historical research and practice perspective on transitions. Nurse-researchers use the book as a framework for developing research programs, clinicians use it for developing models of practice, and educators use it to develop curricula.
Dr. Meleis is also the co-editor of Women’s Health and the World’s Cities (2011), which examines the relationship between global urbanization and women’s health. This book was widely disseminated through international networks and conferences. All told, Dr. Meleis is the author of seven books, more than 180 articles, and more than 40 book chapters.
Improving the Health of Populations
Although Dr. Meleis formally retired in 2016, after a 50-year career as an educator and theorist, she continues to be a speaker, a mentor, and a consultant. Through these roles, she gives voice to nurses’ centrality and contributions to health care, to theory, research, and to health policies, as well as to the challenges women face in achieving quality care. Her goals are to continue to uncover voices, to empower women in general, and nurses in particular, to achieve optimum health and to be able to function up to their full capacity.
Selected Career Highlights
- Living Legend, American Academy of Nursing
- Member, National Academy of Medicine
- Nell J. Watts Lifetime Achievement in Nursing Award, Sigma Theta Tau International
- Nursing Hall of Fame, University of California, Los Angeles and University of California, San Francisco
- Honorary Doctorate of Medicine, Linköping University, Sweden
- Doctor Honoris Causa, University of Alicante, Spain
- Distinguished Honorary Citizenship, Oporto, Portugal