Remembering Grace Peterson, founder of the DePaul Honor Society in Nursing
By Kate Silver
Grace Peterson was a natural leader. Early in her career, she was one of the ﬁrst women to become a colonel in the U.S. military. And at DePaul, where she was a faculty member in the School of Nursing from 1957 to 1986, as well as department chair, her name lives on.
Peterson, who died in 2010, left her mark on nursing at DePaul and in Chicago. The Grace Peterson Research Colloquium, which showcases noteworthy research from DePaul School of Nursing students, was founded in her name. And the Grace G. Peterson Endowed Scholarship provides scholarships to nursing students who are members of DePaul’s Zeta Sigma chapter of the Sigma international nursing honor society.
The chapter was once known as the DePaul Honor Society in Nursing. Peterson’s name isn’t formally attached to the honor society, but as its founder and ﬁrst president, it’s there in spirit.
When Peterson founded the DePaul Honor Society in Nursing in 1977, the group’s stated purpose was to recognize superior achievement in education and practice, encourage creativity in nursing, recognize leadership qualities and encourage nurses to assume leadership roles in healthcare. In its ﬁrst year, the society inducted 96 members.
Karyn Holm (CSH ’70, MS ’72), a Vincent de Paul Emeritus Professor of Nursing, studied under Peterson as a graduate student in the 1970s. “She was very stately, very smart, very ladylike and stood toe-to-toe with pretty much all the guys on campus,” Holm says.
As a woman in academia at that time, Peterson was in the minority, but that was nothing new to her. Prior to her career at DePaul, she served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II and attained the rank of colonel.
Peterson’s service likely contributed to her push for ongoing research and innovation in nursing — whether at war or in peace. “I think because of those experiences, she understood that we really need to be a discipline of doing and inquiry,” Holm says.
Peterson had a big impact on nursing not only at DePaul but also in hospital nursing departments throughout Chicago, considering how many lives she touched through her teaching, mentoring and leading by example, Holm says.
Peterson’s drive inspired Holm to pursue her PhD at Loyola University Chicago. “The sky’s the limit, that was her thing,” Holm says. “You can do what you set out to do — and I always kept reaching.”
Holm had the honor of visiting with Peterson before she died at age 90. She describes Peterson as a humble person who may have never fully appreciated her far-reaching influence. “But to some extent,” Holm says, “she knew she was planting seeds.”
For Holm and so many past and present DePaul nursing students, those seeds took root — thanks to Grace Peterson’s leadership and vision.