Margaret Gene Arnstein was a principal architect of the American nursing profession. Renowned for her work in public health, Arnstein also advanced nursing education and research. She was born in New York City on October 27, 1904. Her parents, Leo and Elsie, were second-generation Americans of German Jewish descent. Arnstein had an older sister and two younger brothers. The family participated in Jewish culture, but was not religiously observant.
The Arnstein family was active in Progressive Era reforms. After graduating from Yale University and becoming successful in business, Leo Arnstein served as president of Mount Sinai Hospital and as New York City’s welfare commissioner. He was also on the Henry Street Settlement’s board of directors. Elsie Arnstein was part of the settlement’s vocational advisory service. The founder of the Henry Street Settlement and of public health nursing, Lillian Wald, was a family friend who inspired Margaret to become a nurse.
Arnstein completed her primary education at the Ethical Culture School in New York City and graduated from Smith College in 1925. Although her parents wanted her to become a physician, Margaret’s interest lay in nursing. She enrolled in the New York Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing, where she received her diploma in 1928. In 1929, she earned an M.A. in public health nursing from Columbia University.
Arnstein worked for five years with the Westchester County Health Department. She then returned to school, earning an M.A. in public health from the Johns Hopkins University in 1934. She spent eight years in the Communicable Disease Division of the New York State Department of Health (1934–1937, 1940–1943), where she designed and implemented innovative nursing research. Her vision for the profession was that nurses should be involved in research and health policy in addition to patient care.
In 1943 Arnstein’s public health endeavors broadened to the international arena. She was hired by the United Nations to develop nursing services for World War II refugees. In 1946, Arnstein entered the newly created U.S. Public Health Service Division of Nursing. She served in several high-ranking posts and became division chief in 1960.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Arnstein engaged in major international initiatives. She surveyed health issues abroad, worked with the World Health Organization, and directed the first International Conference on Nursing Studies. She authored books and numerous articles on nursing and public health.
In 1966, Arnstein left the Public Health Service to spend a year as professor of public health nursing at the University of Michigan. She then accepted the deanship of the Yale University School of Nursing. Under her leadership, Yale became a center for excellence in nursing education. Toward the end of her career Arnstein’s contributions were widely recognized. She received several honorary degrees and in 1966 was the first woman to receive a Rockefeller Public Service Award. In 1971, the American Public Health Association awarded her its highest honor: the Sedgewick Memorial Medal. Arnstein retired in 1972 after becoming ill with cancer. She died in New Haven on October 8, 1972.
SELECTED WORKS BY MARGARET GENE ARNSTEIN
Communicable Disease Control, with Gaylord Anderson (1941); “Communicable Disease in Wartime.” Public Health Nursing (April 1943): 194–196; A Guide for National Studies of Nursing Resources (1953); “Nursing in UNRRA Middle East Refugee Camps.” American Journal of Nursing 45 (1945): 378–381; “Research for Improved Nursing Practices,” with L. Petry and P. McIver. Public Health Reports (February 1952):183–187; “Surveys Measure Nursing Resources,” with L. Petry and R. Gillian. American Journal of Nursing 49 (1949): 770–772.
Arnstein, Margaret Gene. Archival material relevant to public service. Division of Nursing, United States Public Health Service, Rockville, Maryland; Arnstein, Margaret Gene. Personal papers. National Nursing Archives, Mugar Library, Boston University, Boston; Fondelier, Shirley H. “Margaret Gene Arnstein.” In American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd (1988); Green, Ilene Kantrov, and Harriette Walker. “Margaret Gene Arnstein.” In Dictionary of American Nursing Biography, edited by Vern Bullough, Olga Maranjian Church, and Alice P. Stein (1988); NAW modern; NYTimes, October 9, 1972, 34:4; WWWIA 5.
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Connolly, Cynthia. "Margaret Gene Arnstein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 8, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/arnstein-margaret-gene>.