Dr. Mary Ellen Purkis

Dr. Mary Ellen Purkis

I joined the School of Nursing at University of Victoria in 1993, immediately following the completion of my doctoral degree requirements at Edinburgh University in Scotland.  

I had old family connections to Scotland. I travelled to the United Kingdom in 1983, with my undergraduate degree from the University of Calgary in hand, along with registration with the Alberta Association of Registered Nurses (AARN), as it was known at the time, and 18 months of experience working in emergency room nursing. In the three years I spent in the UK, I worked in the operating rooms at Scarborough General Hospital and in the primary care clinic at a nearby holiday camp, a uniquely British phenomenon! In 1984 I enrolled in the 12-month MSc in Nursing Education program offered through Edinburgh University. When I completed that degree I was fortunate to be hired at Medicine Hat College in the Nursing Program but, curious about research, I returned to Edinburgh in 1988 to begin the research-based doctoral program through the Department of Nursing Studies at Edinburgh. 

The focus of my doctoral work was on the practice of public health nurses, a field of practice that, other than the groundbreaking work of Dr. Peggy Anne Field from the University of Alberta, had been largely ignored by interpretive researchers at that time. Drawing heavily on the important work on practice studies conducted by Dr. Patricia Benner, I engaged in a close reading of Dr. Field’s work and produced my own ethnography of nursing practice in public health in 1993. That work left me curious about the relationship between public health nurses and home care nurses and so, upon arriving at the University of Victoria, I began a research program to study this similarly long-neglected field of practice.  

Studying home care nursing practice opened up some long-standing academic relationships with people like Dr. Kristin Bjornsdottir from the University of Iceland, Dr. Christine Ceci from the University of Alberta, Dr. Davina Allen from Cardiff University, and Dr. Jeannette Pols from the University of Amsterdam. Meeting these colleagues and engaging in dialogue about research and nursing practice over the years, at conferences and in writing collaborations, has been pure joy! Those engagements always fueled new ways of thinking about, explaining, and studying nursing practice when I returned to Victoria to teach undergraduate or graduate courses, or when supervising students in their graduate work. 

I am working now on a book with Dr. Ceci, in which we are expanding on the research that we have been engaged in over the last six years, looking at the arrangements that families make when caring at home for a family member with dementia. We aim to have that book published in late 2021. 

Reflection on Directorship

Dr. Mary Ellen Purkis was the Sixth Director of the School of Nursing, 2001-2005

Serving as Director of the School of Nursing at the University of Victoria (UVicwas one of the most rewarding periods of my academic career. I moved into this leadership position in 2001 at a time of relative calm. I assumed the leadership from Dr. Janet Storch, who had done a lot of heavy lifting to get a second campus established for students transferring into undergraduate degree programming from one of three Vancouver-based campuses. Faculty and staff members were hired and working hard to meet the academic needs of students completing their undergraduate degree program at the Langara Collegebased campus of our Lower Mainland Program. We had developed good procedures for working as closely as possible across the two campuses, and we were planning toward expansion of our enrolments to meet the increasing demand for degree preparation for entry into nursing practice. 

The calm did not last long! In September of 2001, I received notification that the Province of British Columbia was about to approve a new qualification, the Applied Degree. Soon afterwards, we learned that two of our partner institutions, Douglas College and Langara College, both located in the Lower Mainland, were intending to apply to offer an Applied Degree in Nursing independent of UVic. 

On one hand, this was the logical outcome of decades of work and the strong reputation of the UVic School of Nursing for supporting collaborative partnerships. At its peak, the undergraduate Collaborative Nursing Program of British Columbia encompassed ten different educational institutions, each with their own unique histories and ambitions. Setting aside some of those unique features, faculty and staff of those ten institutions had come together to work closely on a collaborative project to design and implement a four-year degree program in nursing. That program focused on an orientation toward nursing that foregrounded exciting, emerging themes in nursing, such as health promotion, critical theory, and feminism. Having developed the curriculum collaboratively and employing it across the partnership, it was a relatively easy “next step” for some of our partners to move into a more independent relationship made possible by the Applied Degree provisions. 

The School had to make an abrupt shift. No longer planning for an enrollment expansion, we now had to trim our resources and ultimately our presence in the Lower Mainland. We added new educational partners (College of the Rockies) and had to say farewell to faculty colleagues for whom a move to Victoria was not possible. These were challenging times, but through it all the School thrived, developing new graduate programs including a distance-based Family Nurse Practitioner Program, which was launched in 2004, just before I completed my term as Director. I then followed in the steps of Dr. Anita Molzahn to become Dean of the Faculty of Human & Social Development from 2005 to 2015.