Afaf Meleis was born and grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. Deeply influenced by the city’s multicultural environment, she was inspired to go into nursing by her mother, a pioneering nurse who helped establish graduate programs for nurses in the Middle East.
After earning her undergraduate nursing degree at the University of Alexandria, Meleis came to the United States in the early 1960s to study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). After obtaining two master’s degrees, one in public health and the other in medical sociology, Meleis stayed on at UCLA to pursue her PhD in medical and social psychology.
During her five decades as an educator, Meleis has been a mentor to hundreds of nursing students all over the world. For over three decades, starting in the 1970s, Meleis taught at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). In the 1980s, UCSF instituted one of the country’s first graduate programs in nursing in the United States, and Meleis became a champion of such programs. In 1985, Meleis published Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress, a groundbreaking book employing a post-colonial, feminist analysis that is taught in nursing programs all over the world and is in its sixth edition. Throughout her career, she encouraged women she mentored to advocate for their rights and for women’s health.
From 2002 to 2014, Meleis was the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, one of the world’s top nursing schools. There she became known as the “Energizer Dean” due to her unwavering commitment to bringing innovation to global healthcare and recognition to the vital contributions of nurses. As Meleis explained, “Give nurses, as we give women more power, give them better compensation, give them more autonomy, and some of that translates to their ability to do even better work in supporting the patients and in making a difference in society, making a difference in the health care system.”
Meleis is the author of seven books and more than 200 articles. She has held leadership positions in organizations such as CARE, the Global Health Council, and the International Council on Women’s Health Issues. She is a fellow of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Nursing. Her honors include the Sigma Theta Tau International Nell J. Watts Lifetime Achievement in Nursing Award, and she was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame at UCLA and UCSF.
In 2015, Meleis was named a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nursing. She retired in 2016 after five decades as an educator, but continues to speak and advocate in person and on social media on behalf of nurses and patients.