Vernice Ferguson, RN, BSN, MSN Nursing Executive

Vernice Ferguson
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Vernice D. Ferguson
Photo of Vernice Ferguson
Vernice Ferguson, 1980
BornJune 13, 1928
DiedDecember 8, 2012 (aged 84)
OccupationNurse, executive with United States Department of Veterans Affairs

Vernice Doris Ferguson (June 13, 1928 - December 8, 2012) was an American nurse and healthcare executive. She was the nursing department head at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center for several years, then served as a nurse executive with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs for twelve years. Ferguson held faculty appointments at several American universities. She was named a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing, was the second American named an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing in the United Kingdom and received several honorary doctorates.


Early life and career[edit]

Vernice Ferguson was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina on June 13, 1928. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father was a minister and her mother was a teacher.[1] Ferguson volunteered at a hospital in high school.[2] She taught junior high school science in Baltimore before she became a nurse. She received an undergraduate degree in nursing from New York University and a master's degree from Columbia University Teachers College. She began her career as a nurse at Montefiore Hospital on its NIH-funded Metabolic Neoplastic Research Unit.[3]

From 1967 to 1970, Ferguson led the nursing service at the VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.[2] Between 1972 and 1980, Ferguson headed the nursing department at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. In 1980, she became the chief nursing officer for the Veterans Administration, which employed around 60,000 nurses across the nation at that time. She retired in 1992.[1] Ferguson helped to establish the Health Professions Scholarship Program during her tenure with the VA.[3] Ferguson held teaching appointments at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of IllinoisGeorgetown University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Pennsylvania.[3]

She served as president of the American Academy of Nursing from 1981 to 1983[4] and as president of Sigma Theta Tau from 1985 to 1987.[5]

Awards and honors[edit]

Vernice Ferguson, awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Marymount College, Virginia, 1977.

In 1970, Ferguson won the Mary Mahoney Award from the American Nurses Association, an award that recognizes contributions to racial equality in the nursing profession.[6][7] She was designated a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing in 1998. Ferguson received a New York University College of Nursing Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010. She was the first nurse to receive the FREDDIE Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes excellence in medical media production.[8] Ferguson was the second American named an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing in the United Kingdom.[3]

Later life and legacy[edit]

In 1992, Ferguson retired from the VA and was named a senior fellow with the nursing program at the University of Pennsylvania. She was 84 years old when she died on December 8, 2012 in Washington, D.C..[1] A memorial scholarship is awarded in her honor by the Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs.[9]

  1. Jump up to:a b c Slotnik, Daniel (December 21, 2012). "Vernice D. Ferguson, Leader and Advocate of Nurses, Dies at 84"The New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  2. Jump up to:a b Daniell, Constance (February 21, 1975). "Nurses Cares About Quality of Living"Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  3. Jump up to:a b c d "Vernice D. Ferguson, NYU Nursing Alum, Head of the Veterans Affairs and National Institutes of Health Nursing Departments, Dies at the Age of 84"New York University. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  4. ^ "Past Academy Presidents"American Academy of Nursing. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  5. ^ "Sigma Theta Tau International, Inc. Records, 1920-2007"Ruth Lilly Special Collections & ArchivesIndiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Archived from the original on 2013-08-07. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  6. ^ Phillips Cooke, Marie Murphy (November 10, 1973). "Two Outstanding Black Women Toasted Champagne Sip"Baltimore Afro-American. Retrieved July 20,2013.
  7. ^ "Mary Mahoney Award"American Nurses Association. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  8. ^ "Vernice Ferguson Becomes First Nurse to Win FREDDIE"Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Archived from the original on December 16, 2013. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
  9. ^ . Retrieved July 21, 2013

Whatever the boys have

Vernice D. FergusonDaniel Slotnik's December 21, 2012 obituary in The New York Times"Vernice D. Ferguson, Leader and Advocate of Nurses, Dies at 84" identifies Ferguson as a "leader and advocate of nurses," and the first paragraph explains that she "fought for greater opportunities, higher wages and more respect for nurses as a longtime chief nursing officer for the Veterans Administration." The piece shows that Ferguson faced real challenges right from the start:

At a time when few black women attended college, Ms. Ferguson graduated from New York University with a nursing degree in 1950 and was awarded the Lavinia L. Dock prize for high scholastic standing. At the awards ceremony, the director of nursing refused to shake her hand, [according to Pivotal Moments in Nursing: Leaders Who Changed the Path of a Profession, by Beth Houser and Kathy Player].

After college, Ferguson first worked at a National Institutes of Health-funded research unit at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and later went on to work at several other hospitals. The piece notes that she was a co-author of papers in The American Journal of NursingThe Journal of Clinical Nutrition and The Journal of Clinical Investigation. From 1972 to 1980, she was the chief of the nursing department of the Clinical Center at NIH. Her tenure leading nurses at the Veterans Administration lasted from 1980 to 1992, after which she "was appointed senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing." It would have been good to hear more about these non-VA positions and achievements, particularly what her research interests were. However, the piece does establish that she was a clinical researcher, publishing in journals, and by extension that nurses can do such things, which does not always seem to be well understood.

Vernice D. FergusonThe obituary has more detail about the VA job. When Ferguson took over leadership of "the agency's more than 60,000 nurses nationwide," the nation faced a nursing shortage:

Historically, the nursing ranks were overwhelmingly female, but as job opportunities began to expand for young women in the late 1970s, nursing, with its prospect of strenuous work, irregular hours and relatively low pay, was losing its appeal. Doctors, most of whom were men, were paid far more and rarely discussed medical treatments with nurses, despite nurses' hands-on knowledge of patients.

Ferguson's response, as she related it to authors Houser and Player, was: "What is good enough for the doctor is good enough for me and the nursing staff . . . Whatever the boys have, I am going to get the same thing for the girls." And in 1981 she told the National Journal that hospitals "are going to have to rethink and restructure their policies to let nurses perform nursing services and let others attend to 'hotel' services," like making beds and handling phone calls. The piece notes that Ferguson also "helped establish [a VA] scholarship program to recruit and retain nurses and made educational programs that had been restricted to doctors open to nurses as well." When she retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1992, the number nurses there with a bachelor's degree had more than doubled. And the piece also seems to suggest that Ferguson's advocacy played a role in the rise in nursing salaries nationwide over the course of her career, noting that nurses' average annual pay rose from $26,826 in 1980 to $66,973 in 2008 as expressed in 2008 dollars--that is, removing inflation from the data--a remarkable rise.

Vernice D. FergusonThis obituary portrays Ferguson as a tough and effective fighter for nursing--and one who was not averse to public recognition, at least in service to the profession. She reportedly used her considerable authority to push for parity with physicians in educational and other benefits and to resist having nurses perform non-nursing tasks, which limit their ability to do nursing and send the message that they are low-skilled. (This focus seems similar to Lydia Hall's work at Montefiore Hospital in the 1960's, though the piece does not credit Hall with this push toward leaving the nursing to nurses, an idea that is now regaining importance at institutions such as Philadelphia's Hahnemann Hospital, which has an all-RN staffing model.) Sadly, "hotel services" are just the kind of tasks we still see nurse characters doing on current Hollywood shows. On the other hand, a problem U.S. nurses and patients have confronted in the two decades since Ferguson retired from the VA is that hospitals have less-skilled workers doing nursing tasks, like taking vital signs, as a short-sighted, ineffective cost-cutting measure. The obituary's account of Ferguson's achievements is impressive on its own, but it also reminds readers of the progress nurses have made since she entered the profession. Of course, perhaps needless to say, real parity with physicians--in terms of power, resources, and respect--remains far away. Physicians are still paid "far more" and many still do not respect nurses' expertise to the extent they should, despite the improved gender balance of the medical profession. But Ferguson's career shows how much progress a tenacious advocate can make.