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Patricia Benner - Nursing Theorist


Patricia Benner, a nursing theorist, has made significant contributions to the field of nursing, particularly with her Novice to Expert theory. She has influenced nursing in the United States and internationally as well. She is an internationally noted speaker, researcher and a published author.

Benner was born August, 1942, in Hampton, Virginia, and she was the middle child with two sisters. Her family moved to California where the girls completed high school. Her parents divorced when she was a sophomore in high school, which was a difficult time for the family. Patricia became interested in nursing when she was working as an admitting clerk at a local hospital.

She married Richard Benner in August, 1967 during the time she was still completing her college education. They have a son, born in 1973, and a daughter, born in 1981. Her husband studied situation leadership, and the couple have worked together to develop clinical practice models. In addition, they have traveled together to many hospitals around the world.

Educational Background and Initial Work Experience

  • Pasadena College - Bachelor of Arts, Nursing – 1964

  • University of California, San Francisco - Masters of Science - 1970

  • University of California, Berkeley - Ph.D. – 1982

Benner worked on medical-surgical floors, in coronary care units and medical intensive coronary care. She also spent approximately one year working for the Visiting Nurses Association. From 1970 to 1975 she worked as a Research Associate for the University of California in San Francisco's School of Nursing.

She became a Research Assistant to Richard S. Lazarus in the Stress & Coping & Aging project until 1978. In 1979, she became the Project Director of AMICAE in the San Francisco Consortium/University. From 1982–1989 she became an Associate Professor for the Department of Physiological Nursing at the University of California in San Francisco.

Work History after Receiving a Ph.D.

When Patricia Benner completed her doctorate, she became a Professor in the Department of Physiological Nursing at the University of California in San Francisco, where she still remains. By 1989 she was a tenured professor.

Patricia Benner as an Internationally Noted Researcher and Lecturer

When Benner moved into the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences as a professor, she was the first occupant of the Thelma Schobe Cook Endowed Chair in ethics and spirituality. She is a very well-known lecturer on stress and coping, health, ethics and skill acquisition.

Recently she was inducted as an honorary fellow to the Royal College of Nursing. Her work has influenced nursing clinical practice and clinical ethics. As she worked in various areas of the hospital, including intensive care, her research included the study of nursing practice in intensive care units, as well as, nursing ethics.

Well-known Author of Nine Books and Numerous Articles

Benner's most well-known book is "From the Novice to Expert", which was named as American Journal of Nursing's Book of the Year for nursing research and education in 1984. She also co-authored "The Primacy of Caring" with Judith Wrubel, which was also named Book of the Year in 1990. This book has been translated into eight languages.

Her most recent books include:

"Expertise in Nursing Practice: Caring, Clinical Judgment, and Ethics" is a book that clearly explains the skills necessary to become an expert nurse. The editors completed a six-year study of over 130 hospital nurses working in critical care to write this book. Hundreds of new clinical narratives that track the development of clinical skill acquisition are noted. Expertise in nursing practice is defined in the book, which serves as an excellent, practical resource to enable nurses to expand their knowledge base, their clinical skills and become successful in the practice of nursing.

Novice to Expert – Stages Explained

Patricia Benner explains the five stages of nursing experience in this book.

  1. Novice: the novice is a beginner without experience who was taught the general rules for performing tasks. The rules are independent from specific cases and have a universal application.

  2. Advanced Beginner: This individual will demonstrate acceptable performance as they have gained experience in actual situations and recognize recurring components of nursing. Their experience has taught them principles, which begins to guide their actions.

  3. Competent: This stage is typical for a nurse with 2 to 3 years of on-the-job experience. They have gained perspective; therefore, they plan have some perception of their actions as they are related to their goals. They become more efficient and organized.

  4. Proficient: A nurse at this stage understands and perceives situations as a whole, plus they have a more holistic understanding that will improve their decision-making. They learn from experience when situations deviate from normal and are able to modify plans as necessary.

  5. Expert: This individual no longer must rely on principles, guidelines or rules to connect situations and determine appropriate actions. Their more extensive experience gives them an intuitive grasp in clinical situations. They have become highly proficient in nursing.

As a nurse moves through these levels of experience, they move from relying on abstract principles to using their past concrete experiences to guide their actions. By the time they reach the expert status they are actively engaged in participation of any situation, instead of being a detached observer. Their perception changes to a view of the whole situation versus separate pieces.

Publications in Addition to Books

Since 1985 Patricia Benner has written numerous articles that have been published in a variety of magazines and journals. She has been frequently published in the American Journal of Nursing and in The Japanese Journal of Nursing Research. Her topics have varied from nursing leadership to virtue and care ethics.

Benner's Honors and Awards

Patricia Benner has won numerous awards and honors throughout her career. Earlier in her career she was selected as "Author of the Month" by The Nursing Journal. She has won the Book of the Year Award in nursing education and research many times. She won the National League for Nursing, which is the Linda Richards Award for Leadership in Education. She has received many awards in her long career in nursing.

Most recently she was named one of the "American Academy of Nursing's Living Legends", which is the highest honor bestowed by this organization.

Another outstanding contribution is the national nursing educational study "Educating Nurses: A Call for Radical Transformation". Benner was one of the initial scholars to investigate interpretive phenomenology, which is an approach to understanding psychological qualitative research. This research works to understand how an individual in a given nursing context makes sense of a given phenomenon. "Interpretive Phenomenology" was one of the first books written on this topic.

Last year,Catherine Gilliss, who is the outgoing president of the American Academy of Nursing, recognized Patricia Benner's significant contributions to nursing, which included knowledge embedded in "nursing practice, skill acquisition, clinical reasoning, as well as, the ethics of care".


Patricia Benner is an internationally known nursing theorist, who was made a tremendous impact on the nursing community. She has greatly impacted critical care nursing. To learn more about Patricia Benner there is an excellent book, "Nursing Theorist: Patricia Benner Biography".


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