The Loss of a Legend:  Dr. Marlene F. Kramer

Remembering Dr. Marlene F. Kramer, the 3rd Dean of Nursing at the University of Connecticut and author of the acclaimed book, Reality Shock: Why Nurses Leave Nursing.

A view of the School of Nursing with Wilbur Cross in the background.

Storrs Hall (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Dr. Marlene F. Kramer, born in 1931, passed away in 2022 at the age of 90.  She was the Dean of the UConn School of Nursing from 1980 to 1987, expanding its research mission, enhancing the doctoral preparation of the faculty, and revising the curricula for undergraduate and graduate programs. Under her leadership, the alumni society became an important force in the life of the school.

Dr. Kramer received an undergraduate degree in nursing from St. Louis University in 1953, a Master of Science in nursing at Case Western Reserve University in 1958, and a PhD in sociology and education at Stanford University in 1966. She had been a member of the faculty of three schools of nursing – the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the University of Connecticut, and as the first occupant of the Orvis Chair in Nursing Research at the University of Nevada, Reno. Dr. Kramer left UCSF to become Dean at the University of Connecticut.

In an interview with Dr. Carol Polifroni, who served as The Dean of Nursing at UConn from 2015-2017 and Associate Dean for 6 years, Carol reflected on many memories of her friend and colleague. Dr. Polifroni recalled one of the most profound passions that Dean Kramer was known for was the influence that nurses had at the bedside of patients, and how that was so powerful and influential in the overall recovery of the patient. Dean Kramer was known as a visionary by her friends and colleagues. Dr. Polifroni said, “If you had to summarize how Marlene lived her life, both in work and in play, her motto was she would rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.” Dean Kramer had authority to act and that was the philosophy for how she lived. In her personal life, Dean Kramer played just as hard as she worked. She was an avid skier and had a love for water sports. She believed individuals could only “work as a team, if they played as a team,” said Dr. Polifroni. She fondly remembered Dean Kramer hosting groups at her lake house for swimming and skating.

In the late 1960’s Dr. Kramer commenced a research program, while dean of the undergraduate program at the University of California where she examined the process of transitioning students to the workplace.  Her research examined the result of newly licensed nurses experiencing reality shock which led to early burnout, resignations or leaving the nursing profession altogether. This study led to the publication in 1974 of her seminal work, “Reality Shock:  Why Nurses Leave Nursing.”  Dr. Kramer described “multiple patient-simultaneity complexity” resulting from being assigned several patients with competing needs versus care for one patient at a time and then moving to the next patient. She suggested it was a common cause of reality shock.

While Dean Kramer was at the University of Connecticut, she began a program of research on institutions of excellence in nursing care, which was motivated by a Magnet Hospital publication.  This research focus continues to be important as hospitals strive to promote a productive and healthy workplace. Her book continues to provide the framework for research and study on retention and satisfaction in the nursing profession in an already stressed healthcare system.  According to Dr. Polifroni, “Dean Kramer believed that our role as educators was to ensure that our graduates were ready for the world of acute care settings.”

The Living Legend designation from the American Academy of Nursing was awarded to Dr. Kramer in 2007. The Academy recognizes an extremely small group of fellows as Living Legends in honor of their extraordinary contributions to the nursing profession, sustained over the course of their careers. In 2012, the Academy of Medical Surgical Nurses awarded Dr. Kramer its highest honor, the Anthony J. Jannetti Award. Dr. Kramer continued her work well into her 80’s, leaving a legacy of both wisdom and perseverance as she helped pave the way for understanding the work of nurses and the need for healthcare system change. The Marlene Kramer Outstanding Alumni Award for Research in Nursing will forever be a tribute to her dedication to the UConn School of Nursing and nursing research.