New Oral History: Virginia Tilden

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This post is by Archives Assistant Rosie Yanosko.

Image of Doctor Virginia Tilden
Virginia Tilden, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N.

We recently added an interview with Virginia Tilden, Senior Associate Dean for Research at the School of Nursing, to our Oral History Collection. I highly recommend reading this interview, but in case you’re short on time, I’d like to share some of Tilden’s fascinating story. Her father was a Foreign Service Officer, so her formative years were spent in the Commonwealth of Nations and the Far East. Her upbringing instilled her with a “sense of a pretty large world, and the suffering of many people.” While Tilden was in high school, her family moved back to the States, and she decided to study Nursing at Georgetown University. She described her time at Georgetown as follows:

They were the early years … nursing was very traditional. It was very much subservient to physicians. It was very much follow orders. You know, that would make me bristle. Follow orders? Wait a minute. I mean, so that was a challenge for me. Why I stayed was I loved psychiatric nursing because it was where I could connect with people, with their suffering, with their limitations.

Tilden’s empathy for the suffering of others and dedication to challenging the status quo are evident throughout her career.

After graduating from Georgetown in 1967, Tilden needed a change of pace, and she decided to pursue her Master’s in Psychiatric Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Describing herself as “a little bit of a rebel,” Tilden lived in the storied Haight-Ashbury district. At that time, few schools had Ph.D. programs in Nursing, so she studied under a group of nursing faculty with doctorates in psychology, anthropology, sociology, and other fields. This interdisciplinary approach had a marked influence on Tilden, who incorporated these divergent viewpoints into her own work. After completing her Master’s degree, Tilden served as a clinical instructor before going on to pursue her Ph.D. in Nursing from UCSF. Her groundbreaking doctoral dissertation studied the psychology of women during pregnancy and childbirth, including a sub-study of women who were single by choice.

She completed her Ph.D. in 1981 and accepted a faculty position at OHSU’s School of Nursing the following year. Along with Barb Limandri and others, Tilden studied domestic violence and abuse. In 1989, she became the Associate Dean for Research and earned a postdoctoral certificate in Clinical Bioethics from the School of Medicine at the University of Washington (UW). Tilden remembers a lecture at UW that focused on the case of Nancy Cruzan, a young woman in a vegetative state whose family sought to withdraw life support. The nursing home caring for Cruzan refused to comply with her family’s wishes, and the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This case had a profound impact on Tilden:

I had this interest in families during gestation and childbearing. And then family violence … I was very interested in what [her] family went through. And as a result of that, I kind of moved my research program to trying to understand what families experienced when they went through ethical dilemmas.

Shortly thereafter, Tilden partnered with other OHSU faculty to create an Ethics Center, where her research supported the creation and development of Physician Orders for Life-Saving Treatment (POLST).

To learn more about Tilden’s work and her remarkable contributions to the field of Nursing, consider reading her oral history.