Vernice Doris Ferguson, RN, MA, FAAN, FRCN, renowned for fostering excellence in nursing care and the nursing profession, died Dec. 8 at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 84.
A news release from New York University, where Ferguson received a B.S. in 1950, described Ferguson as “a role model for nurses at every level of the profession, whether practitioners, administrators or researchers. Exemplifying the highest ideals of nursing, she increased awareness of the vital role nurses play in healthcare research and policymaking, and thereby contributed enormously to the greater prominence of nurses as leaders in the healthcare community.”
Ferguson from 1980 to 1992 was the nurse executive for nursing programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest organized nursing service in the world with more than 60,000 nursing personnel.
As the chief nurse in the VA, Ferguson set up research programs and was instrumental in establishing the Veterans Administration Health Professional Scholarship Program, which proved crucial in recruiting and retaining qualified nurses in the system. Concerned about ways to inspire caregivers, she helped create the Secretary of Health and Human Services annual award for Excellence in Nursing.
She also traveled throughout the country evaluating conditions and looking for ways to educate staff nurses and help them value their work. During her leadership at the VA, the number of RNs with a baccalaureate degree or higher more than doubled.
Before her VA assignment, Ferguson was chief in the nursing department of the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health from 1972 to 1980.
Ferguson was born June 13, 1928, in Wilmington, N.C. Along with her B.S. from NYU, she received a nursing certificate from Bellevue Nursing Center in 1950 and a masters from Columbia University Teachers College in 1957. She also attended Fisk University.
She was a science teacher in the Baltimore school system and commenced her nursing career as head nurse of the Neoplastic Metabolic Research Unit at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Being a member of a research team stimulated her respect for the value of nursing research and opened a new direction in her professional development, according to the NYU news release.
Ferguson was an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom, the second American nurse so honored, and a Fellow and past president of the American Academy of Nursing. Her career list of awards and honors is lengthy and includes eight honorary doctorates. She was the recipient of two fellowships, one in physics at the University of Maryland and the other in alcohol studies at Yale University.
She was a past president of Sigma Theta Tau, nursings international honor society. In her inaugural message to the group, in 1985, she urged her colleagues to develop their own roles as mentors: “Tip the scale in favor of the budding young researchers, educators, administrators and entrepreneurs, for they will provide the scholarly leadership for the profession and healthcare in the years to come.”
At the 25th anniversary celebration of the American Academy of Nursing in 1998, Ferguson was honored as a “Living Legend,” an exemplary role model whose contributions continue to make an impact on the provision of healthcare in the United States and internationally.
“Dr. Ferguson was a pioneer in nursing leadership whose eloquent and inspirational leadership energized several generations of nursing leaders throughout the globe,” said Eileen M. Sullivan-Marx, RN, PhD, FAAN, dean of the NYU College of Nursing. “She felt deeply about diversity and rights of all people and moved us all forward.”
Ferguson is survived by her sister, Velma Ferguson, of Colorado Springs, six nieces and nephews and many great nieces and nephews. A memorial service is planned at NYUs College of Nursing in early 2013.