By Claire Regan ’80
She was an agent of change for the nursing profession, a researcher, a visionary, a scholar and one of the first women to lead an Ivy League university.
And for Dr. Claire M. Fagin ’48 H’93, who died on Jan. 16 at the age of 97, it all began as a student at Wagner College.
The former Claire Muriel Mintzer was born in Manhattan on Nov. 25, 1926, and grew up in the University Heights section of the Bronx. Her immigrant parents, who owned a grocery store, set a clear path for her to become a physician, following in the footsteps of an aunt.
She entered Hunter College at 16 and, after one semester, transferred to Wagner to take advantage of a new program in nursing — her true calling — because “it was not in my soul or my heart to be a physician,” she shared in a 2011 Columbia University interview. “My natural being is to be at a peer level with people. I don’t see myself as superordinate. I see myself as collegial.”
The bold decision disappointed her parents but would afford her countless opportunities to elevate the profession over the next seven decades.
When she earned a nursing degree from Wagner in 1948, she was already working at the former Sea View Hospital, a 98-acre municipal sanatorium on Staten Island for the treatment of tuberculosis. Her work at Sea View inspired a lifelong interest in psychiatric nursing.
From there, she went to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where she worked with emotionally disturbed teens. She earned a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from Columbia University in 1951 and took a position as a researcher at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md.
At NIH, she met Samuel Louis Fagin, a mathematician and electrical engineer, and they married in 1952. He died in December 2019 at 96. Their son, Joshua, a composer and musician, died of COVID-19 in 2020 at 62. Surviving is a son, Charles, a location manager for film and television who is married to France Myung Fagin.
Over the decades, Fagin often used her platforms to strengthen the public perception of nursing and broaden opportunities for nurses. They were more than silent assistants to doctors, she insisted; they were heroic and capable partners.
After completing a doctorate at New York University in 1964, she made headlines with her dissertation on “rooming in,” the clinical practice allowing parents to stay with their hospitalized children.
At the time, children were separated from their parents after they were admitted to most hospitals — a policy that had prevented the Fagins from spending time with their son, Joshua, when he underwent hernia surgery. Her research focused on the stark differences in outcomes between hospitalized toddlers who had unlimited parental visits and those who were isolated from their families.
Publicized in newspapers and on the “Today” show, her research was credited with sparking nationwide policy changes. The practice of 24-hour visiting in pediatric departments is now the norm in American hospitals.
Fagin went on to direct the graduate program in psychiatric nursing at NYU and chair the nursing department at Lehman College in the Bronx before she was recruited in 1977 as dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. When she stepped down 15 years later, enrollment had tripled and Penn’s nursing school was ranked among the nation’s best.
Inspired by her successes, Penn’s trustees tapped Fagin as interim university president in 1993, thrusting her into First Amendment issues that were creating unrest on the Penn campus. The one-year appointment was hailed as a milestone at a time when few college presidents were women.
Fagin received an honorary doctorate from Wagner while serving in the position, one of 15 she would collect during her meritorious career.
Her work uniting the fractured Penn campus earned her the nickname “The Healer,” and the Nursing School’s Claire M. Fagin Hall is named in her honor.
After her retirement from Penn in 1996, she continued working as a researcher, mentor and consultant with a focus on geriatric nursing, and served on the board of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.
“She touched people everywhere,” said her son, Charles, adding that he appreciated her unconditional love. “She had a calling to make a difference.”
With Samuel, her husband of 67 years, she enjoyed regular strolls in Central Park and sailing in Oyster and Chesapeake bays. The Fagins had a small role in the 2008 movie, “Made of Honor,” playing an older couple rowing across the Central Park Reservoir.
His mother was a foodie, Charles Fagin said, and she enjoyed visiting New York’s museums. Just a few months ago, she viewed the “Picasso in Fontainebleau” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
She was also adventurous and fit, swimming at the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia at the age of 90.
Patricia Tooker ’79 M’95 D’16, dean of the Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing at Wagner, cherishes time spent with Fagin over the last few years. Their lunch meetings always began in Fagin’s Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park before continuing at a neighborhood restaurant.
“So what’s going on at Wagner? Fill me in,” Fagin would ask Tooker about the nursing department, leaning in to catch her guest’s updates on board scores, clinical sites, new courses and enrollment — which today tops 600.
“Claire was a pioneer … a modern-day Florence Nightingale,” Tooker said. “She changed the landscape of nursing. I was honored to call her colleague, friend and fellow alumna.”