Type: Exploratory
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The nursing profession practice has undergone various evolutions and improvements, with the first major reforms being introduced by Florence Nightingale. In addition, Hildegard Peplau changed the nursing profession by developing a theory commonly referred to as the interpersonal relations theory that has greatly changed the practice of nursing. This essay examines the life of Hildegard Peplau, her theoretical works, and how the theoretical works have positively contributed to the nursing profession.

Information about Hildegard Peplau

Hildegard Peplau was born on September 1, 1909 in Reading, Pennsylvania, as the second born daughter of Mr. Gustav and Mrs. Otyllie Peplau. Gustav and Otyllie were immigrants from Germany. Hildegard received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University, and different honorary degrees from various universities in America. Hildegard was also a certified psychoanalyst at the William Alison White Institute of New York. Peplau started her nursing career in 1931, after graduating from the Pottstown School of Nursing. She also worked as a staff nurse in Pennsylvania and New York City. Peplau was also selected and appointed as the school nurse at Bennington College in Vermont. In 1943, Hildegard Peplau earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the Bennington College. During her employment at Bennington College and Chestnut Lodge, Hildegard Peplau studied psychology alongside Erich Fromm, Harry S. Sullivan and Fromm-Reichmann Frieda. Hildegard also worked as a psychiatrist with the Army Nurse Corps and the American School of Military Psychiatry between 1943 and 1945.

Hildegard Peplau was elected by the Board of the International Council of Nurses (ICN) to serve as a member of the board for two terms. She also received the Christiane Reimann Prize at the ICN Quadrennial Congress in 1997. The Christiane Reimann Prize is the highest honor for nurses in the world. It is given every four years to persons with exceptional contributions to nursing and healthcare at both national and international levels. Moreover, the American Academy of Nursing (AAN) honored Hildegard Peplau as a Living Legend. George (2009) asserts that Hildegard Peplau was the first published nursing theorist since Florence Nightingale. Hildegard developed the nursing theory of interpersonal relations which helped in revolution of the nursing practice. Hildegard Peplau died in 1999 at her home in Sherman Oaks, California.

Influencing Factors Preceding the Theory

The main factor that influenced the development of the interpersonal relations theory was the challenges and hardships that were faced by the nurses in the healthcare industry. In the early 1900s, nursing schools that were created during the era of Florence Nightingale became less autonomous and were controlled by the hospitals. In addition, nursing trainees were discouraged from classroom learning. During this period, there was an increase in the number of women in the nursing profession because most healthcare providers considered women as an alternative source of cheap labor. This resulted into exploitation of women. According to Spray (2009), the interpersonal relations theory was based on the previous theory that was developed by Harry S. Sullivan in 1952. Thus, Hildegard mainly focused on extending the interpersonal relations theory and its use to improve nursing practice. She is also considered as one of the renowned and primary contributors of various reforms that were made in mental health law. Her major contribution concerned compassionate treatment of patients with behavior and personality disorders.

Influencing Factors that Contributed to Hildegard Peplau’s Success

Some of the factors that contributed to the success of Hildegard Peplau include her keen interest in nursing, broad knowledge in psychology, and personal experiences in life. According to Forchuk (2012), Hildegard was very determined since her childhood to escape from the ordinary life of traditional women. She wanted to achieve more in her life. Hildegard understood that the nursing profession was one of the few career choices that were available to women. Clarke (2009) asserts that Hildegard Peplau witnessed and personally experienced the highly shocking and demoralizing flu outbreak which occurred in 1918. The experience greatly influenced her personal views and understanding of the effects of illness on humans. Thus, Hildegard was highly determined to change the interpersonal relationships between nurses and their patients.

Overview of the Interpersonal Relations Theory and Hildegard Peplau’s Work

The interpersonal relations theory postulates that the relationship between nurses and clients is the fundamental basis in the nursing practice. Hildegard Peplau used the interpersonal relations theory to illustrate that neither clients should passively receive treatments nor nurses should act according to orders from the doctors, without developing strong interpersonal relationships with the patients. Thus, Hildegard identified seven major roles, such as resourcefulness, teacher role, counseling role, technical expertise, and active leadership that should be played by nurses in order to develop strong interpersonal relationships with the patients. The interpersonal relations theory is considered as one of the most radical and revolutionary theories of the nursing profession.

Hildegard Peplau is a renowned psychiatrist. She was a tutor for graduate students at Teachers College. She was also a member of the faculty of the College of Nursing at Rutgers University from 1955 to 1975. In addition, Hildegard worked as an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as a visiting professor at many universities in Africa, Belgium, and Latin America. She also taught psychology to nursing students in most universities throughout the United States of America. Moreover, Hildegard served as the president of the America Nurses Association (ANA) for two years between 1970 and 1972, and as the second vice-president for the ANA between 1973 and 1975. She also advocated for further training of nurses in order to enable them to provide high quality therapeutic care to the patients instead of the traditional one that was widespread in most mental hospitals in the United States of America at that time. Meleis (2010) described Hildegard as a prolific writer, after she successfully published her first book Interpersonal Relations in Nursing in late 1952.

Purpose of the Interpersonal Relations Theory

The main purpose of the theory was to provide a comprehensive explanation of the importance of shared experience between nurses and patients in the nursing practice. The theory postulates that interpersonal relationships between nurses and patients can be improved through appropriate observation, formulation, interpretation, validation, and intervention by the nurses during the treatment process. Through shared experience, nurses can develop adequate understanding about the patients and the treatment environment. This will facilitate the provision of high quality healthcare services to the patients. The theory emphasizes that the main role of nurses during treatment is to help the patients cope with the difficulties they are undergoing. According to the theory, strong interpersonal relations between nurses and patients can only be achieved when nurses apply the principles of the human relations during the treatment process.

Concepts and Definitions Associated With the Theory of Interpersonal Relations

Some of the major concepts and definitions associated with the theory of interpersonal relations involve identification of the various roles of nurses. They include teaching and counseling responsibility during treatment as well as explanation concerning the phases of developing interpersonal relationships such as orientation and exploitation between nurses and patients. The theory also defines a person as an organism that tries to reduce worry and apprehension caused by needs; and nursing as a significant therapeutic interpersonal process that aims at improving the health of individuals in the society. The theory also outlines the major phases of developing interpersonal relationships that can help nurses create strong interpersonal relationships and shared experiences with patients. The phases include the orientation phase, identification phase, exploitation phase, and resolution phase.

The Uniqueness of the Interpersonal Relations Theory

One of the unique things about the theory is that it provides a comprehensive guideline for understanding individual behavior of nurses and patients. It also considers nursing as an art of healing and a therapeutic process of treatment. Moreover, the theory recognizes that strong interpersonal relationships between nurses and patients can only be achieved by following a series of steps.

Importance of Interpersonal Relations Theory in Nursing

In my view, the theory is important because it outlines the steps to be followed by nurses and patients in order to develop strong interpersonal relationships that will facilitate the treatment process. The theory also provides a logical and systematic viewpoint about the nursing environment that is different from the traditional opinions. In my opinion, I will assert that the theory serves as a solid foundation for nursing practice and can be used by nursing practitioners as a guideline for improving the quality of care services they offer to the patients.


I believe that the works of Hildegard Peplau have produced the greatest changes in nursing practices such as the use of therapeutic counseling in treating patients with mental illnesses. The ideas presented by Hildegard in the theory of interpersonal relations have greatly influenced the perceptions of nurses about the nursing profession, relationships with patients as well as the quality of care services they provide. The theory has also installed critical components in today’s nursing practices. Finally, the theory acts as the foundation for patient-centered care services in the healthcare industry.

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