The distinguished career of a nursing pioneer and UW faculty member came to a close on Sept. 27 with the death of Dean Emeritus Rheba de Tornyay. She was 87.
Dean, educator, innovator, trailblazer, mentor, collaborative colleague, friend, inspirational leader, all these were facets of a career whose focal point and touchstone was the University of Washington School of Nursing, where she served as dean from 1975 to 1986 and as a faculty member until 1996.
Her UW tenure encompassed a dramatic and dynamic phase of the School of Nursing’s growth. Her critical emphasis was upgrading the standards of the nursing profession and nursing faculty to be consistent with standards of other learned professions and disciplines.
The University of Washington was advancing to national prominence as an outstanding research university, and de Tornyay ensured the School of Nursing kept pace. Thus, faculty were held to the standard of doctoral preparation and research productivity that would become the norm for appointment, promotion and tenure in academia. The School of Nursing established one of the first programs in the country leading to the Ph.D. in nursing science, despite a lack of funding for the effort during a state financial crisis. She was capable of melding disparate viewpoints and differing personalities into an effective, highly focused, collaborative team—a team that shared a common goal and created the energy to reach that goal.
The results were the accomplishments that led the School of Nursing to its ranking as the top-rated nursing school in the country, a position it has held continuously since 1984. The school gained and sustained renown for the quality of its faculty, students, research, and teaching. The School of Nursing became a source of not just nurses, but also distinguished nurse-researchers, nurse-educators, and professional leaders. Its alumni are both legion and legend.
Though she was dean for slightly more than a decade, her impact and influence extended far beyond her time as dean at the School of Nursing.
De Tornyay’s landmark book, Strategies for Teaching Nursing, became the unquestioned standard in the field and influenced the way professionals were educated at nursing schools nationally and internationally. Through three editions and several translations over a span of 30 years, it exemplified a more collaborative and reflective approach to the teaching and learning process at a time when students were seen as passive recipients of knowledge.
Born Rheba Fradkin to a farming family in a rural area of Northern California, de Tornyay earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from San Francisco State University in 1951, a master’s in education from San Francisco State University in 1954, and a doctorate in education from Stanford University in 1967. Her first faculty position was at the University of California, San Francisco. She was the second dean of the UCLA School of Nursing prior to assuming the helm of the UW School of Nursing.
De Tornyay’s list of firsts, awards, honors, and professional recognition is lengthy. It includes being only the third nurse elected to the Institute of Medicine; a Founding Fellow and the first board president of the American Academy of Nursing; a director of the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Nurse Scholars Program; and the first woman and the first nurse ever elected to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation board of trustees. She endowed the UW School of Nursing’s Center for Healthy Aging (renamed in honor of de Tornyay and her husband, Rudy), was editor of the Journal of Nursing Education, and was a member of the American Nurses Association’s Commission on Nursing Education.
De Tornyay was a member of the National Advisory Council of the San Francisco Institute on Aging, and served as president of the UW Retirement Association. She was named a Living Legend by the American Academy of Nursing, which in 2011 renamed its annual fund in her honor.
De Tornyay’s final publication, in 2001, was the book, Choices: Making a Good Move to a Retirement Community. She continued teaching and learning at UW until her retirement in 1996.
Memorial gifts in de Tornyay’s honor should be directed to the de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging fund at the School of Nursing. Checks may be sent to the University of Washington School of Nursing, attn. Glory Visario, Box 357260, Seattle, WA 98195. More information is available at 206-543-3019.