Nancy Woods: A Living Legend

UW School of Nursing Dean Emerita, Nancy Fugate Woods

University of Washington School of Nursing Dean Emerita, Nancy Fugate Woods, was recently inducted as a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing at the Academy’s Transforming Health, Driving Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

Over her 50 year career, Woods has inspired and improved lives through her research in women’s health.

Woods is one of the United States’ most distinguished scholars of women’s health and a pioneer of research on the menstrual cycle. She has written or collaborated on more than 300 scholarly publications, focusing on the development of women’s health studies, the menstrual cycle and menopausal transition.

As a nascent researcher, Woods recognized a profound dearth of research on the menstrual experience of typically healthy women. “I got very interested in the menstrual cycle because of the women’s movement of the 1970s. At the time, researchers presented stories about PMS and symptoms in which all the data gathered had come from women with severe mental or physical illness. This very specific data was then being used to describe the experiences of all women! I wrote a small grant proposal on the menstrual cycle, to gather information from a community of women. This ended up being the first prevalence study of menstrual symptoms in the United States ever.”

This small, groundbreaking study was the first of many by Woods, who had begun a mission to fill the gap of scientific literature around women’s health. By the 1980s, Woods’ program of research coalesced around the menstrual cycle and included studies on dysmenorrhea, self-care and mental health during menstruation, socialization and stress of menstruation, premenstrual syndrome, and perimenstrual and menopausal symptom studies.

Joan Shaver, who was Dean of the University of Arizona College of Nursing, has collaborated with Woods for decades. “In her research, Nancy has influenced the framework for the whole field of women’s health as well as women’s health in nursing science. Particularly for women experiencing menstrual disorders or transitioning to menopause, Nancy has shone a spotlight on novel sources of women’s symptoms and, importantly, revealed the impact on their daily lives. Furthermore, she harnessed and invented innovative ways to let the voices of women inform our understanding of their health challenges,” Shaver said.

Woods has continued her research in women’s health, refocusing on women as they age, and serving as codirector of the UW School of Nursing De Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging with Professor Barbara Cochrane. Together, they have worked to develop a framework for what healthy aging means based on older adults’ experiences, communities, providers and caregivers.

One of Woods’s recent studies found that more than 20,000 women, at 80 years and older, report excellent health, peace of mind, and a strong sense of purpose and control. The study participants are the same women Woods began studying at the School of Nursing’s Center for Women’s Health Research more than 20 years ago.

“What does it mean to age well?” Woods asked. “We can’t define the diagnoses we receive, but we can define the quality of our lives,” she said. “When we can’t do something anymore, we can redefine ourselves and what matters to us. And well-being isn’t always something you can see, hear or touch. But we live it every day.”

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