Empowered by her education, scientific rigor, and passion for mentorship, Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis transformed nursing

The internationally renowned nurse-researcher and medical sociologist will receive the 2024 National Humanism in Medicine Medal

Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis was only 12 years old when her mother moved halfway across the world, journeying from their home in Egypt to the United States to study for her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis

Phone calls came, if she was lucky, once every few months. Her mother was away from the family for two full years.

“It made me realize nursing must be a very important profession for her to do that,” said Dr. Meleis, recalling the courage it took for her mother to accept this opportunity at the expense of being with her family.

During this time, Dr. Meleis’ father put his career in the navy on hold to remain at home with his two young daughters. This commitment from both of her parents showed her not only what a special career nursing is, but also how important education must be.

“She really shaped me,” Dr. Meleis said of her mother, a pioneer in nursing who went on to establish graduate programs for nurses in the Middle East. “Her values, her vision, and her love for nursing were definitely decisive for me.”

Dr. Meleis, as a young girl, sits with her mother, Dr. Soad Hussein Hassan, at the School of Nursing diploma program at the University of Alexandria in Egypt. Dr. Hassan created and directed the program at the University’s School of Medicine.

Dr. Meleis had a front-row seat to witness how her mother worked to advance nursing education in Egypt. She also learned what it meant to be an advocate for women, as she spent time in the clinic where her mother worked as a nurse-midwife. Hearing stories about vulnerable patients, as well as her mother’s personal stories of marginalization and oppression, helped Dr. Meleis find the path her own career would take.

And what a career it has been.

Afaf Ibrahim Meleis, PhD, FAAN, LL, is an internationally renowned nurse scientist and medical sociologist who has made an extraordinary impact on nursing, global health, and women’s health through her groundbreaking research and mentorship. Her contributions to nursing — spanning science, theory, education, and humanism — have been transformative.

Dr. Meleis is a Professor of Nursing and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing and Director of the School’s WHO Collaborating Center for Nursing and Midwifery Leadership from 2002 through 2014. This followed her 34-year tenure as a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where she is a Professor Emeritus. In 2015, she was named a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nursing.

At the heart of this remarkable career is her drive to improve the health and lives of people around the world. To give voice to the voiceless. To advance the profession of nursing. To ensure that nurses are valued and treated fairly. To inspire the next generation of nurses to do the same.

In recognition of her incredible impact, Dr. Meleis will receive the National Humanism in Medicine Medal at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s Annual Gala on June 10th. She will be presented the medal this year alongside visionary pediatrician, activist, and author Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and innovative healthcare executive and gun violence prevention advocate Michael J. Dowling.

These three extraordinary leaders have placed the human connection at the center of their life’s work. Each of them has helped make care more humanistic for countless patients, family members, students, and healthcare team members. Together, they represent the 2024 theme of the Gold Gala: “Creating Healthy Communities through Humanism.”

“Dr. Afaf Ibrahim Meleis shows us how far one person’s impact can reach,” said Dr. Kathleen Reeves, President and CEO of the Gold Foundation. “Her extraordinary mentorship, her research, and her leadership in nursing education have spanned the globe and changed healthcare for the better. Throughout all of her work, she kept humanism at the center.”

The importance of the human connection is evident in the way Dr. Meleis speaks about mentees, colleagues, and patients alike.

“Humanism is caring, listening with empathy. Being there, being completely present. Building trust. And sharing,” said Dr. Meleis. “I think we’ve been taught in the healthcare system that professionalism is about not sharing yourself, is about creating a distance. What the Gold Foundation is about is decreasing that distance, eliminating the distance. And you eliminate the distance by sharing of yourselves. It’s okay to share with our patients who we are, and some of our privileges and some of our vulnerabilities, too.”

Making a global impact

Dr. Meleis is a global presence in nursing. She has consulted in more than 40 countries, sharing knowledge, mentorship, and – perhaps most importantly – her voice.

Dr. Meleis (at left) poses with the Chancellor, faculty, and graduating classmates at her graduation with a B.S. in Nursing at the University of Alexandria. Her mother, at right, was then a co-dean of the school.

Dr. Meleis earned her undergraduate nursing degree at the University of Alexandria in Egypt. She then came to the United States in the early 1960s to study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned two master’s degrees — in nursing and in medical sociology — and a PhD in medical and social psychology.

Her career began at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), where she remained for over three decades, finding a home as she made her mark across research, scholarship, and education.

“I grew up with the idea that you plan well, so I planned my education and I knew I was going to do a certain path in education,” said Dr. Meleis. “But other than that, lots of things in my life were serendipitous, and things opened up that I didn’t think would open up for me. So I always say to people: Don’t be quick to say no. Get out of your comfort zone, and things open up in a different way.”

Early in her career, she was invited to work as a consultant in Kuwait, where expatriate culture was dominant, with patients and healthcare professionals coming from many different countries. This sparked her interest in cross-cultural healthcare.

“I was really trying to understand: Where are the points of miscommunication? And where are the points of connection that can be made in spite of the different cultures and different values and different approaches?” Dr. Meleis said. “So that was one moment of my thinking that if this is happening within one country, what happens between countries, too?”

Dr. Meleis meets with students at her alma mater, Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alexandria, where she returned for a visiting professorship.  

Dr. Meleis helped establish the first Health Institute in Kuwait, where she served as Dean from 1975 to 1977 before returning to UCSF. Back in the United States, she found that there was a dearth of literature about the struggles Middle Eastern immigrants faced in accessing healthcare in the U.S. To bridge the gaps in knowledge and culture, Dr. Meleis co-founded the Mideast S.I.H.A.: Study of Immigrants’ Health and Adjustment project at UCSF.

“I always said: I’m the minority of minorities. I’m a nurse in a world that values medicine more. I’m a social scientist in a world that values basic science far more. I am an immigrant. I have an accent. I come from a developing country,” said Dr. Meleis. “And I am empowered by my education. I am empowered by being a good researcher, and a good scientist. I am empowered by being in the right universities. And I’m going to use those privileges to make a difference.”

Dr. Meleis’ leadership continues across many organizations. She currently serves as a Trustee of Aga Khan University in East Africa, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, and The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, where she co-chaired its Global Forum on Innovations in Health Professional Education. She is a member of the National Advisory Committee for the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation Faculty Scholars Program.

A voice for women around the world

Being a witness to disparities – of privilege and vulnerability, power and voicelessness – led Dr. Meleis to focus her passion on improving the health and lives of women internationally.

Dr. Meleis meets with nurses in a hospital in Africa.

Her influential research on women’s health has taken place across the world, including Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Kuwait, Egypt, and the United States. “I was listening to women and their voices – voices that have not been heard, disenfranchised voices and marginalized voices,” she said. “And [I was] able to put that together into the literature, and say, This is really what women are saying about their situation. This is what satisfies them, what they want from the healthcare system.

This was at a time when the Women’s Health Movement was beginning to take shape, in the 1960s and 1970s.

“We are talking about a time when hot flashes were not studied and menopause was not a focus at all,” said Dr. Meleis. “Women’s roles and distress about their multiple roles was not something that anybody was interested in. So we had to create a community and empower people to go back to their countries and have a voice about women’s health.”

Her leadership in the International Council on Women’s Health Issues was critical to encouraging research on women’s health and creating worldwide partnerships to improve the lives of women. Dr. Meleis also co-chaired the Harvard-Penn-Lancet Commission on Women and Health. The results were published in 2015 in a full Lancet issue on Women’s and Family Health, which provided a blueprint of the conditions that affect the health of women and families across the world.

One area that she has helped shed light on is how rapid urbanization in the world has affected women. Alongside colleagues at Penn, including those in departments such as architectural design and real estate, Dr. Meleis co-edited Women’s Health and the World’s Cities, a collection of essays exploring the connections among gender, health, and urban environments.

“That became a really important document, but it also raised awareness about the needs of women in different communities,” said Dr. Meleis. “They want to be safe, they want to meet their multiple role demands, they want to connect, and they want resources like healthcare, education, and shopping to be easily accessible through the right transportation.”

The idea of community – the theme of this year’s Gold Foundation Gala – was central to the project.

“Creating community is bringing members of the different professions together, fostering teamwork, bringing people together who have similar goals and can advocate collectively because they have each other’s support,” she said. “And it advances knowledge, too, in areas that have not been really advanced when you feel isolated.”

Redefining nursing through transitions

Dr. Meleis received the 2023 UCLA Award for Professional Achievement.

Dr. Meleis has published groundbreaking books that are used by nursing faculty and students worldwide, including Transitions Theory: Middle Range and Situation Specific Theories in Nursing Research and Practice and Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress, which is now in its sixth edition.

Dr. Meleis’ extensive research led her to develop Transitions Theory, a framework to identify and facilitate transitions in the lives of patients, helping nurses assess how to best care for them.

The theory has been used to inform scholarship by nurses around the world. It can be applied to transitions in health (e.g., experiencing an acute illness), development (e.g., becoming a new mother), situations (e.g., the immigrant experience), and organizations (e.g., learning new technology). It recognizes that these experiences do not hinge on one defined point in time, but are part of a process that requires intervention and support from nurses along each step.

A legacy rooted in human connection

Dr. Meleis has mentored hundreds of students, faculty, clinicians, and administrators both within the United States and around the globe. Though her accomplishments are vast, she considers mentorship her legacy.

Dr. Meleis (center) received the received the Princess Sirindhorn Award for distinguished scholarship in Thailand. With Dr. Meleis are, at left, Dr. Ameporn Ratinthorn, Dean of Mahidol University, and at right, Professor Siriorn Sindhul. Both are Dr. Meleis’s mentees from UCSF.

“My mentorship is about human connection. It’s about connecting with students at a level that is not a student-teacher, but more as a person to a person,” she said. “It’s about getting to really know them as human beings within the context of their culture and the structure of their family, as human beings who have multiple roles and multiple goals.”

The generational impact of this connection is clear when her own mentees become mentors themselves. Some of their mentees consider Dr. Meleis their “grandmother mentor,” she said.

Dr. Meleis has mentored incredible leaders in nursing, including Dr. Azita Emami, Dean of the Yale School of Nursing, and Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx, immediate past Dean of the NYU Rory Meyers School of Nursing, past President of the American Academy of Nursing, and Gold Trustee, to name just a few.

“I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring people from so many different cultures. I also learned from my mentees a great deal, and I felt I was growing with each mentorship situation,” Dr. Meleis said. “So, for selfish reasons, I was also mentoring because it added something to me. It added a new experience, and made me grow and be a better human being.”

She wants the same rich, deep, and varied experience for those considering nursing as a career now.

“I believe if I had not been a nurse for the past 60 years, this is the best time to choose nursing as a career,” said Dr. Meleis. “It is an amazing career that allows you to work up to your full capacity in so many different areas, and it provides you with opportunities to play many impactful roles. My advice [to nurses] would be: Get educated. Get mentored at every stage in your life. Collaborate and partner. Have a voice and use your voice. And know that nursing is vital for patients.”

Learn about the other two 2024 National Humanism in Medicine Medalists: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Michael Dowling. All were celebrated at the 2024 Annual Gala in New York City. 

Stacy Bodziak

Director, Communications