NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Nursing Icon Abdellah Mourned

Dr. Faye Glenn Abdellah
Dr. Faye Glenn Abdellah

Dr. Faye Glenn Abdellah, 97, founding dean of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences Daniel K. Inouye Graduate School of Nursing and retired rear admiral of the Public Health Service, died Feb. 24 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. In the mid-1960s, she worked in NIH’s Division of Nursing, part of the old Bureau of Health Manpower Education.

In 1937, 18-year-old Abdellah witnessed the explosion of the German passenger airship Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J., which became a turning point in her life. In an interview years later she said, “I could see people jumping from the zeppelin and didn’t know how I would take care of them, so I vowed that I would learn nursing.”

Abdellah earned a nursing diploma from Ann May School of Nursing in Neptune, N.J., undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees from Columbia University and did graduate work in the sciences at Rutgers University. She wrote more than 153 publications, including her seminal works Better Nursing Care Through Nursing Research and Patient-Centered Approaches to Nursing, which changed the focus of nursing theory from disease-centered to patient-centered. 

She received 12 honorary degrees and numerous awards, including the Allied Signal Award in 1989 and the Institute of Medicine’s Gustav O. Lienhard Award in 1992, all recognizing her innovative work in nursing research and health care.

Abdellah was the first nurse and the first woman to serve as deputy surgeon general (with Dr. C. Everett Koop) and was first nurse to hold the rank of rear admiral. Her leadership resulted in many accomplishments, including development of the first tested coronary care unit, saving thousands of lives. 

Abdellah was renowned as an expert in health policies related to long-term care, the developmentally disabled, aging, hospice and AIDS.

In 1989, she retired from the PHS and went on to serve as founding dean of the Graduate School of Nursing at USUHS. In 2002, she retired with almost 50 years of government service.

Abdellah was a charter fellow in the American Academy of Nursing, later serving as its president. In 1994, she was one of the first fellows to receive the academy’s highest honor, the Living Legends Award. 

In 1999, she was elected to the Hall of Fame for Distinguished Graduates and Scholars at Columbia University and the following year was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. 

“This is an incredible loss to the nation and nursing,” said Rear Adm. Susan Orsega, PHS chief nurse officer, who works at NIAID. “Her intellect, compassion and passion for excellence will be deeply missed. As a former student at USUHS, I feel personally blessed to have learned from her leadership.” 

“We will remember [Abdellah] as a true leader whose combination of dedication, intellect and approach brought experts from many different fields together,” said Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “Her prominent presence in nursing will be greatly missed.”

The Graduate School of Nursing at USUHS, in collaboration with PHS, plans a memorial tribute to honor Abdellah and the nearly half-century of her contributions to the nation.  

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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