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On January 2, 1931, the school opened its doors to its first class of 24 undergraduate students under the direction of Dean Bessie Baker and instructor Ann Henshaw Gardiner.

The school has offered many different degrees over the years. The first students, high school graduates, received a diploma after a three-year program that cost just $100 per year. In 1938, the school began offering baccalaureate degrees to students who had completed two years of college along with the nursing curricula. In 1944, the school began a Bachelor of Science in Nursing Education degree program. In 1953, it added a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program. Five years later, under the leadership of Thelma Ingles, The Duke School of Nursing was one of the first schools in the nation to offer a graduate nursing program.

In 1984, as a part of Duke University’s retrenchment plan, the last class of BSN students graduated. The graduate programs also ended in 1984, re-opening in 1985 with a new curriculum and focus on research. In response to the increasing nursing shortage, in 2002 the school once again began offering a BSN degree – this time as an accelerated, 16-month degree offered to students already holding an undergraduate degree. In 2006, the school accepted the first students into the new PhD program. In 2008, the school launched the first Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program in North Carolina to prepare nurses for leadership positions in clinical care.

Fundamental to all of these programs has been the role of the nurse in delivering and improving patient care.

"The school of nursing has a rich history in direct preparation of generalist and advance-practice nurses," says Mary Ann Fuchs, chief nursing and patient care services officer for Duke Hospital and the Duke University Health System (DUHS). "These individuals learn in our hospital and clinic settings. Many become DUHS employees or care providers in other organizations across the state. In some way, shape, or form, they touch citizens across North Carolina."

An example of the close relationship between school and hospital came in the 70s, when faculty and students alike played vital roles in the creation of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Nursing education lost some steam in the mid-1980s when the University decided to close the bachelor's program and offer only graduate-level nursing education. "When Duke closed the undergraduate program, the university alienated many of our alumni," says Catherine Gilliss, PhD, RN, FAAN, herself an alumna of the school. "But under my predecessor, Dean Mary Champagne, the school truly flourished. We have a strong platform from which to build our future."

Gilliss can point to many signs that the future will be even more exciting than the past. "We are recruiting excellent students and faculty, and our commitment to educational excellence is stronger than ever. Our five degree programs support career development for clinical practice at basic and advanced levels. Our doctoral programs prepare nurses for careers in service leadership and science. The Duke Translational Nursing Institute is strengthening our partnership to nursing service as we collaborate to improve patient care," she says.

"Having navigated a series of enormous challenges," says Gilliss, "we are now looking forward to the next 25 years. I predict that these will be the brightest years for our school. We will continue our tradition of educating the brightest people interested in careers in nursing. But we have layered into this school a commitment to improve patient care through research and a greater commitment to direct participation in nursing practice. We have rediscovered the energy and possibility that comes from reconnecting to Duke University and the Duke University Health System through collaborative work on issues such as global health and improving care through nursing research."

History of Duke University’s School of Nursing (Volume One: 1931 to 1971)
In the years between 1931 and 1971, the School faced an economic depression, a world war, boom times and a cultural revolution. Through it all, our leaders and students moved forward to develop and advance the practice of nursing in teaching, research, and clinical practice. Read how it happened>>
History of Duke University’s School of Nursing: (Volume Two: 1971 to 2013)
With the ongoing growth of the School, new leadership and expanded programs for students, volume two of our history covers one of the most challenge periods when in 1979 the School of Nursing was targeted for closing. From the difficult challenges of this period, visionary leadership, and new programs helped the School enjoy a remarkable turnaround. Read how it happened>>