Harriet Kitzman’s lasting legacy: Brilliant research that transformed health care for mothers and their children

Mar. 16, 2020
Harriet Kitzman

Harriet Kitzman, PhD, RN, FAAN, a brilliant and internationally renowned researcher whose lifetime of work in pediatrics reshaped how health care is provided to young mothers and their children, died March 11. She was 82.

She leaves a powerful legacy created during a 60-plus year career as a nurse, researcher, professor, mentor, and leader, most of it spent at the University of Rochester School of Nursing.

Inspired by the disparities she encountered as a pediatric nurse facing young, socioeconomically disadvantaged mothers and children, Kitzman’s body of work in the development, design, and testing of a nurse-home visitation program became the basis for the Nurse-Family Partnership. The program, which sends specially trained nurses to regularly visit first-time moms-to-be and follows them from early pregnancy through the child’s second birthday, was federally funded in 1996 and now serves more than 38,000 families per year across 41 states.

The evidence-based community health initiative boasts more than 40 years of evidence showing significant improvement in the health and lives of first-time moms and their children living in poverty. Literally putting the intervention under a microscope, her research with David Olds, PhD, has proven that nurse visits do in fact lead to healthier pregnancies, improve the health and development of children, and help at-risk families improve their self-sufficiency. The program’s continuous funding was fueled by the outcomes of more than two decades of randomized, controlled research trials for which Kitzman served as principal investigator or co-investigator.

As a longtime dean of research at the School of Nursing, Kitzman was a professor and mentor who has encouraged countless other nurses to pursue their own passions for research, guiding them toward discoveries and innovations in areas such as pediatrics, palliative care, asthma, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease.

“It is a devastating loss for all of us. Harriet was a giant presence, not only here at the University of Rochester, but in the nursing profession,” said Dean Kathy Rideout, EdD, PPCNP-BC, FNAP. “She was instrumental in so many of our lives and careers. I know for me, I wouldn’t be who I am today without the mentorship, friendship, and love of Harriet.”

Kitzman was known for her soft-spoken humility as much as her uncompromising ethics, her no-nonsense, hard-working attitude, and abundant energy. In a career spanning more than six decades, she remained a vibrant and essential part of the school’s daily work well into her 80s, developing synergistic collaborations across the Medical Center, inspiring a spirit of inquiry, and enriching the learning atmosphere with her wisdom and experience. Her most recent study was published in late 2019, and at the time of her death, she had a highly-rated multimillion dollar study on the verge of being greenlighted by the NIH.

Kitzman’s career was also characterized by outstanding leadership. In addition to her work as senior associate dean for research, she directed the Center for Research Implementation and Translation (CRIT), a vital part of the Medical Center’s Clinical Translational Science Institute. It served as a national model for how a school of nursing can have a leadership role in a clinical and translational science award program. With the overall goal of moving scientific discoveries more rapidly from the bench to the bedside, CRIT scientists compare the risks and benefits of different interventions in “real world” settings, and explore the reasons why a particular treatment might not actually be used in practice.

Kitzman earned her nursing diploma at the Genesee Hospital in 1957 and earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., before returning to Rochester to complete her master’s education. Until the late 1960s, she worked as a supervisor and instructor at Rochester General and the Genesee Hospitals, before accepting a position at the University of Rochester Medical Center as a project nurse in pediatric primary care.

Inspired by the school’s then-chair, Eleanor Hall, Kitzman became a key player in a partnership between the Department of Pediatrics and the School of Nursing to develop health care services for children in the community. In this role, she developed the School of Nursing’s pediatric nurse practitioner program in cooperation with the Department of Pediatrics. The program prepared nurses to provide primary care to children.

In 1972, she was named the school’s first clinical chief of Pediatric Nursing by Loretta C. Ford, EdD, RN, FAAN, during a pivotal time when the school united the three pillars of nursing: education, practice and research – a radical concept at the time, which is now embraced by schools across the country.

“Harriet was the head nurse of pediatrics when I first met her,” said Elizabeth McAnarney, MD, Distinguished University Professor and former longtime chair of pediatrics. “I admired her focus, goodness, and intellect, then and forever. Her contributions to the young whom she nurtured, her colleagues, and to children are legion.”

With a desire to accomplish more, Kitzman sought further training in research, working toward her doctoral degree and concentrating on testing and developing programs and services that could help young, disadvantaged families. Her work during this span became the foundation for subsequent years of funded research in which she tested the effect of nurse-home visits to young mothers and children. This grassroots work led to the development of the highly successful national model, the Nurse Family Partnership. It also spurred numerous related studies.

“Although this research is often most closely linked with the name of David Olds, it is clear that without Harriet’s guiding hand, the effort would not have had its game-changing impact,” said Richard Kreipe, MD, professor of pediatrics emeritus.

Kitzman earned her PhD in 1984 and was named chair of Primary Care Nursing and Pediatrics, and three years later was promoted to associate dean for academic affairs. From 1995 to 2005 she was honored with the title of Loretta C. Ford Professor of Nursing. She became associate dean for research in 2004 and in 2009 was named senior associate dean for research, a position she maintained until her death.

A fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, Kitzman served as an investigator, co-investigator or consultant on more than 30 federally or foundation-funded research projects. She was responsible for nine federally- or foundation-funded training grants.

She was the author or co-author of more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, 17 book chapters, and 14 proceedings, and was a peer reviewer for 13 scientific journals. Over the years, Kitzman also served on 13 expert panels, including at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, the Policy Institute of the American Association for Protecting Children and the National Institute of Nursing Research.  She also served as a consultant to more than 50 American or international schools of nursing and health-related organizations.

In addition to her national and international presence, she attended to local needs by chairing the Research and Policy Advisory Council of the Children’s Agenda for Rochester. She also served as a member of the Board of Children, Youth and Families of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

In May 2014, Kitzman was presented with the Charles Force Hutchison and Marjorie Hutchison Medal, the University of Rochester’s highest recognition of personal achievement. She was presented with the Dean’s Medal, the School of Nursing’s highest honor, in a private ceremony late in 2019.