Dec. 13, 2019

Former faculty member believes students must know nursing history

50 Faces of Nursing: Diana Mansell, BA’84, MA’86, PhD’96
50 Faces of Nursing: Diana Mansell, BA’84, MA’86, PhD’96
50 Faces of Nursing: Diana Mansell, BA’84, MA’86, PhD’96

While she was a nurse for 48 years and is now retired from UCalgary Nursing as a nursing instructor, Diana Mansell is first and foremost a historian who is passionate about nursing stories. 

In 1979, while working with oncology patients as a nurse clinician, she first realized she wanted to work with ‘the dying.’ But it was also then that Mansell took notice of the person on the unit doing the job she wanted: the chaplain. 

“The summer of 1980, I completed a Basic Unit of Pastoral Education and this changed my nursing and my approach to patients forever,” she says. “When I approached a patient as a chaplain, I only had myself to offer whereas, as a nurse, I had a task to do, a medication to administer. I was there to listen, not to do. Both roles are of an intimate nature but the combination of the two is indeed powerful.” 

Mansell would go on to complete her PhD in post-Confederation Canadian history, doing a dissertation on the history of nursing in Canada. In the countless undergraduate classes she taught at UCalgary Nursing, she focused on this to give the future generation of nurses context about their profession.

“I didn’t go all the way back but I started with [Florence] Nightingale because that’s the beginning of modern professional nursing,” she says. “I wanted the students to have an idea that we didn’t just pop out of nowhere. I was a bit of a stand-up comic too so I had the kids engaged. Some even did history papers for their term papers.” 

For the last few years, Mansell has been working on a new book called Bedside and Community: 50 Years of Contributions to the Health of Albertans by the University of Calgary. It’s a collaborative history of health care and health research at the University of Calgary with contributions from the Cumming School of Medicine, the Faculty of Nursing, Faculty of Kinesiology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Faculty of Environmental Design, Department of Psychology, and Indigenous Health Initiative. 

The book celebrates the many significant contributions the University of Calgary has made to the health of Albertans and will be released next year by the University of Calgary Press.

Tell us about the work you do and what drives you to do it.

“I like teaching and supervising nursing students, especially around nursing history and issues in nursing to give the students a taste of real-world nursing. Nursing didn’t evolve in a vacuum - we were out there as part of the community and social and political forces have always impacted and molded the profession.”

What’s a memorable experience you had at UCalgary Nursing and why it’s significant in your life or career?

“While I was teaching in the Faculty of Nursing, I was asked to speak at the graduation banquets every year, including the BNAT [Bachelor of Nursing Accelerated Track] banquets so those evenings were very busy especially if they landed on the same night! I spoke at every graduation banquet during the time I was there. I think it’s because of my sense of humour; it’s a little sarcastic. I can be blunt and I will say things that people think and are afraid to say. I heard from the students that they liked my classes because I told a lot of stories.”

Where do you see the future of nursing going?

“My recent upcoming publication describes how our graduating students are now so well-prepared to meet the needs of those individuals in the health-care system and how they will be dealing with the whole person. This would include the whole family (including pets), the community within which that person is involved and the geographic community. These students are much more knowledgeable than I was when I graduated and so well-prepared to face the many issues they will face.”

Is there a nursing issue you are especially passionate about or would like to change?

“I am especially passionate about the need for all nurses to know our history and strongly believe there should be nursing history in the curriculum. Students need to learn the evolution of nursing and how we responded to changes all around us.” 

What advice do you have for aspiring nurses?

“Listen to your patients! And be assertive and stand up for yourself. I’ve always said to students ‘open your mouth and take on leadership in nursing, otherwise, you’re just going to be dragged along.’”

Is there one luxury in life you would rather not live without?
“My dog, Filos. He’s a chocolate lab.”

All through 2019, we've highlighted 50 Faces of Nursing, profiling nursing members in celebration of our 50th anniversary. For more, visit