Margaret Arnstein felt strongly about making the nursing profession aware of the many important and dramatic changes that were taking place in health care. To seek these changes, she stimulated many field studies in public health nursing.
She organized and developed field studies to analyze and systematize the observations and insights of nurses. She hoped to find ways of modernizing the nursing profession. This was a major priority throughout her life.
She was born on October 27, 1904, in New York City, to Elsie and Leo Arnstein. Her parents were second-generation Americans of German-Jewish descent. She was one of four children and the family life was steeped in Jewish cultural activities and tradition, Her father was a graduate of Yale who found success in business. He was later to become the New York City Commissioner of Welfare and the president of Mount Sinai Hospital.
Margaret was greatly influenced by Lillian Wald, of the Henry Street Settlement, who was a close friend of her father. Lillian Wald encouraged and supported Margaret's interest in public health and nursing. She graduated Smith College with an A.B. Degree, in 1925, earned a diploma from the New York Presbyterian Hospital School for Nursing, in 1928, and received a Masters Degree in Public Health Nursing from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1929.
After earning another Masters Degree from John Hopkins University, she began working as a consultant nurse in the Communicable Disease Division of the New York State of Public Health. She left in 1937. Her career as an educator began in 1938 as a teacher of public health and nursing in the University of Minnesota's Department of Preventative Medicine. She left her teaching position and returned as a consultant nurse in the New York Department of Health in 1940.
Because of her advocacy in using applied research in the public health field, she worked very closely with physicians. It was while doing a study on the contributing factors in the incidence of respiratory infections that she co-authored with Gaylord Anderson the text Communicable Disease Control, in 1941. This book became a standard where public health and nursing was taught.
After a two-year leave to work with the United Nations to advise nurse and training programs in the Balkan countries, she returned to the U.S. She joined the U.S. Public Health Service and remained there for 20 years, later becoming chief of the Division of Nursing.
She wrote A Guide for National Studies of Nursing Resources, in 1953, for the World Health Organization. She conducted the first international conference on nursing studies in France, 1956, and she became the first person to receive the Annie W. Goodrich Chair of Nursing at Yale, in 1958.
Margaret Arnstein received many honors and awards for her contributions to public health nursing throughout the world. She led a very active life and was relatively free of illness. However, she became ill in 1971 from cancer, which slowed her down until she passed away on October 8, 1972.
In her obituary in the New York Times, she was referred to as "a distinguished and outstanding educator and leader in public health nursing in America." The many contributions of Margaret Arnstein will always be remembered in the fields of medicine and public nursing.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America: 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour “Sy” Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.