1. Ferrell, Betty PhD, MA, FAAN, FPCN, CHPN

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Tribute to Jeanne Quint Benoliel, DNSc, RN, FAAN

We often hear the phrase "We stand on the shoulders of giants." Those words ring true in recognizing a giant nurse pioneer in palliative care, Dr Jeanne Quint Benoliel. Born in 1919, she became a nurse in 1941 and retired as professor emeriti in the School of Nursing at the University of Washington. Jeanne died in January 2012 at the age of 92 years.1


Jeanne enrolled in nursing school at the age of 18 years at St Luke's Hospital in San Francisco. Early in her career, she joined the Army Nurse Corps as she reported feeling pressured to do her patriotic duty in World War II. Her early experiences of dying patients were with the young soldiers with malaria, dengue fever, and typhus. An early personal experience with death occurred in 1956 when Jeanne's sister experienced cerebral hemorrhage during her eighth month of pregnancy, and the family had to make the decision to end her life support. Jeanne wrote about the "conspiracy of silence" as the hospital staff avoided any contact with the family as they awaited her death.


Jeanne's professional career expanded as she received her baccalaureate degree, a new development in nursing at that time, and later graduate degrees. Her research career began in 1961 with the first study that revealed the profound impact of mastectomy on women, an experience most professionals had ignored. Jeanne also reported that this opened her eyes to women's experiences in living with uncertainty and fear of death.


In 1962, Jeanne joined the research team of a sociological study exploring hospital personnel and dying patients. She discovered the avoidance of dying patients by nurses and physicians and was one of the earliest researchers to recognize the importance of nurses' own death awareness and emotional burdens in caring for the dying.


Jeanne is remembered by her colleagues as a social activist. She worked with the Black Panthers in the 1960s to feed children living in poverty. She led a Peace March in San Francisco in the 1960s, and she grew to understand nursing as a force of social justice and advocacy for the most in need. Jeanne was involved in the earliest days of the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement. Often the only nurse in the evolving field of thanatology, Jeanne pioneered thinking about nurse-patient communication, grieving families, and that specialty training was needed for nursing in care of the dying.


Dr Ruth McCorkle, another giant in our nursing discipline, described meeting Jeanne in the stacks of the basement of the University of Iowa library. Her 1963 article on "The Impact of Mastectomy," the first nursing research on the subject, inspired Ruth to launch her own research career. Jeanne would later develop the first course on dying for nurses at the University of Washington, "Death Influence in Clinical Practice."


Jeanne is remembered for her vibrant, colorful life and her passionate commitment to nurses. She was a strong voice for nurses as professionals whose clinical expertise, knowledge, and scholarship should be valued. What many nurses remember most is that Jeanne taught us that, as nurses, we need to care for each other. When you were in her presence, you felt as a novice nurse that she would defend you against all forces. But her giant force was accompanied by a wicked laugh, a great sense of warmth and humor, and recognition that to the core of her being she was committed most to the needs of seriously ill patients and families. Dr Mary Ersek, a palliative care nurse leader, was also one of hundreds of nurses that Jeanne mentored. Mary shared this memory:


"I think the two words that capture who Jeanne Benoliel was are 'compassionate' and 'curmudgeonly.' I first met Jeanne when I was a graduate student at the University of Washington in the master's program. I took her course on death and dying. She wasn't particularly encouraging and was quick with her criticism of my work. I heard from several graduate students what an outstanding mentor and support she was-I just didn't see it. Then a couple of years later, when I was in the doctoral program, I gave birth to my son. He was several weeks premature and ended up in the neonatal ICU. How surprised I was when I received a card from Jeanne, congratulating me and my husband and hoping that all was well. I was even more surprised when she showed up at the post-birth baby shower with a gift. A year and a half later, I found myself on bed rest with my second child. Pretty much confined to my house I was again surprised to open the mailbox and find a letter from Jeanne. She had noticed that I hadn't been around school and learned of my situation. Was I okay? Did I need anything?"


"A friend of mine and I went to Jeanne's apartment several years ago. Our job was to help Jeanne box up her papers that were to be sent to the University of Pennsylvania History Center. By this time, her macular degeneration was severe enough that she was not able to read. Jeanne had a tiny place at a retirement community, and we had to go downstairs to the little storage unit to retrieve boxes. There were dozens of boxes crammed full of papers. We came across hundreds of thank-you cards and letters that she received from former students and colleagues. She had letters, so many letters and papers, all typed out. Some had their carbon copies attached. There were two- and three-page thoughtfully crafted letters of support, recommending former students for faculty positions and fellowships. And there were drafts of so many manuscripts and grant proposals. Most were typed, and many contain numerous comments and edits in Jeanne's own hand. And then in one of the boxes, I pulled out a file with my name on it. Among other things, it contained a thank-you card that I sent her for the baby shower gift she'd given me-still containing the photograph of my son. It was then that I began to fully understand Jeanne's prodigious output and the vast web of personal and scholarly connections that she had cultivated. I miss the old curmudgeon."


Palliative care nurses and all professionals across disciplines in our field stand on the very strong shoulders of Jeanne Quint Benoliel. Thank you, Jeanne, for breaking the conspiracy of silence and giving voice to nurses who care for the dying.


Betty Ferrell, PhD, MA, FAAN, FPCN, CHPN






1. Benoliel J. Jeanne Q. Benoliel. In: Nevidjon B, eds. Building a Legacy: Voices of Oncology Nurses. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 1995: 47-60. [Context Link]