Claire Fagin was a distinguished nursing educator, scholar, dean, and leader, as well as the first woman interim president of the University of Pennsylvania (June 1993–July 1994) and the first female to achieve this position in any Ivy League university. Her groundbreaking studies on parents and children changed hospital practices around the country long before her term as the first female interim president of an Ivy League university opened new possibilities for women in academia. Her fifteen years as Dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania transformed the school and established international respect for its faculty, research, and students as agents of change in the nursing profession.
Claire Fagin, a distinguished nursing educator, scholar, dean, and leader, became the first woman interim president of the University of Pennsylvania (June 1993–July 1994) and the first woman to ascend to this position in any Ivy League university. Her achievement, as a woman and especially as a nurse, was immortalized for Fagin by a friend who slightly altered an old New Yorker magazine cartoon showing a boy and girl playing “hospital.” In the version given to Fagin, the girl turned to the boy and said: “You can play doctor and I’ll play the president of the University of Pennsylvania.”
Family and Education
Fagin’s family, however, really expected her to be a doctor. Born in New York City on November 25, 1926, Claire (Mintzer) Fagin was the second daughter (her sister Sylvia was born on October 2, 1919) of lower middle-class immigrant parents, Mae Slatin and Harry Mintzer, from Russia and Austria. Her family called her “sonnygirl” to reflect their expectation that she would achieve without being constrained by gender expectations. They hoped she would become a physician, like her aunt. Instead, Fagin chose nursing and for fifty years has been on the cutting edge in changes in nursing practice, scholarship, and education.
Fagin entered Hunter College in 1943, at age sixteen, with dreams of becoming a singer, wife, and mother. She transferred a year later to the baccalaureate program in nursing at Wagner College on Staten Island after becoming intrigued by the advertisements for the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and recalling childhood experiences with visiting nurses. She was advised to enter a college rather than hospital-based nurses’ training and to try either Wagner or Adelphi College because she was Jewish. Wagner, a small, private Lutheran-based college with few Jews, accepted her into its second nursing class. Fagin received her diploma in nursing in January 1947 and a B.S. degree in June 1948. Her work in child and adolescent psychiatric nursing at two New York City hospitals gave her the experience of being on an equal level with women of different racial backgrounds. It also taught her how to argue for her own perspective while seeking out colleagues who supported her efforts.
Recognized early for her intellect, activism, and nursing skills, Fagin went on to work at Bellevue Hospital, with its cutting-edge, but exceedingly challenging, psychiatric units. Her skills needed a more theoretical foundation, so she soon left Bellevue for the new psychiatric nursing master’s program at Columbia University Teachers College. In the postwar atmosphere of hospital and research expansion, many of the women at Teachers College were being groomed for leadership in the rapidly changing nursing field. Upon graduation at age twenty-four, she became a nursing consultant to the National League for Nursing (NLN), which defined the functions and qualifications for psychiatric nursing throughout the country.
Pioneering Work in Psychiatric Nursing
Her marriage to engineer Sam Fagin in 1952 brought with it a commute from suburban Maryland to New York for the NLN job. In that same year, Gwen Tutor Will, a close friend from graduate school and the chief nurse at the yet unopened clinical center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), invited Fagin to develop the psychiatric children’s unit and become her assistant chief. Fagin leaped at the chance to be involved in a new phase of psychiatric nursing and to work at a national research center where members of the psychiatric community would be reporting on their pathbreaking work.
Fagin’s subsequent career moves were once again in the field of nursing education. She taught in a new psychiatric/mental health nursing program at New York University (NYU). During this period she also worked on a Ph.D. and adopted two children, Joshua and Charles. Her groundbreaking dissertation, built upon studies done by British researchers she had met at the NIH, demonstrated the critical importance to patients and nurses of allowing parents of hospitalized children to room together. Her published monograph and articles in the mid-1960s, as well as her television appearances and media visibility, were highly influential in transforming hospital practices across the country.
By 1969, Fagin was restless with some of the theoretical directions the NYU program was taking and wanted a chance to try her ideas. She became professor and chair of the nursing department at Lehman College, a division of the City University of New York, a position she held for the next eight years. During that time Fagin created a program that ably demonstrated that college-educated nurses could do both the theory and practice of nursing.
Impressed by her success at Lehman, the University of Pennsylvania lured Fagin in 1977 to be professor and Margaret Simon Dean of the School of Nursing and to rebuild its faculty. Fagin served in this capacity until 1992, when she became Dean Emerita and Leadership Professor Emerita. In her fifteen years as dean, Fagin transformed the school and established international respect for its faculty, research, and students as agents of change in the nursing profession. She became known for her courage and forthrightness, as well as her ability to play institutional politics and to attract the funding needed to build Penn nursing into a leading school. Thus by the time Fagin completed her deanship, Penn was the highest ranking school of nursing in the country, federal research support was in the top three, and all standing faculty were Fellows in the American Academy of Nursing. Fagin’s institutional and administrative skills were again put to good use when she became president of the National League for Nursing (1991–1993) and Penn’s interim president (1993–1994).
In addition to her Ph.D. in nursing, Fagin has received ten honorary doctoral degrees and innumerable awards from alumni, civic, and professional associations, including the Kaplan-Landy Award from Hadassah in 1994. She also served as president of the American Orthopsychiatric Association and the National League for Nursing and was named a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nursing in 1998. She has written or edited ten books and monographs and more than ninety articles. In the early 2000s she was a program director of the Building Academic Geriatric Nursing Capacity Scholars Program based at the American Academy of Nursing.
Fagin’s beloved husband Sam, the pillar of her support, died in 2019, and her son Joshua passed away from COVID-19 in 2020.
Claire Fagin’s ideas and scholarship shaped the debate over nursing education, hospital economics, and nursing practice. Her skill in engaging people and institutions outside of nursing and in raise nursing as an academic discipline was unparalleled. In a field that attracted very few Jewish women of her generation, she stood out for her strength of character, melding of theory and practice, intellectualism, forthrightness, and political skills.
Abandonment of the Patient: The Impact of Profit-Driven Health Care on the Public, editor with Ellen D. Baer and Suzanne Gordon. New York City: Springer Publishing Company, 1996.
Charting Nursing’s Future: Agenda for the 1990s, editor with Linda H. Aiken. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1992.
Family-Centered Nursing in Community Psychiatry: Treatment in the Home. Philadelphia: FA Davis, 1970.
Nursing in Child Psychiatry, editor. Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby, 1972.
Nursing Leadership: Global Strategies: International Nursing Development for the 21st Century, editor. New York: National League for Nursing, 1990.
Readings in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, editor. Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby, 1974.
Fagin, Claire. “Claire Fagin.” In Making Choices, Taking Chances: Nurse Leaders Tell Their Stories, edited by Thelma M. Schorr and Anne Zimmerman. Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby, 1988.
Reverby, Susan. “Oral History of Claire Fagin.” Center for the Study of Nursing History, School of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1982).