Nursing Trailblazer Barbara L. Nichols Selected as Inaugural Recipient of the UW–Madison School of Nursing Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Barbara L. Nichols, recipient of the inaugural Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, is seen at the 2022 UW-Madison School of Nursing Littlefield Lecture.

The Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion will be presented to Nichols on October 24, 2023, during the School of Nursing’s Investiture Ceremony. The Investiture will mark the formal installation of named professors and chairs at the School of Nursing while also celebrating the School’s impact and legacy as it prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2024.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing is pleased to announce the recipient of the inaugural Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Barbara L. Nichols, MS, DL(h), SDc(h), PedD(h), RN, FAAN, has been selected as the first recipient of the School of Nursing’s new award.

Named in honor of the first African American alumnus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing, the Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is presented to a graduate, current student, current or former faculty or staff member, or community partner of the School of Nursing for their notable work or responsive advocacy that reflects the School’s commitment to health equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“In creating this award, it is our intent to celebrate individuals who have greatly impacted the needs of those whose health status or social condition leaves them vulnerable or places them at risk,” says Dean Linda D. Scott, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FNAP, FAAN. “The Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion will highlight exceptional leaders in health care who have made outstanding contributions through their research, diverse interprofessional perspectives, work to support vulnerable populations, or those who have enhanced community engagement or access to resources that promote health and well-being.”

As a trailblazing advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in nursing, Nichols is deserving of the honor. Known for her visionary leadership, advocacy, and political expertise throughout her 60-plus-year career, she has been a nurse leader and executive, impacting the nursing profession through organizational leadership, policymaking, and partnership with leaders across health care professions. After spending the first 20 years of her career as a direct care nurse, she has focused the last 44 years on leadership and policymaking in professional associations and health care organizations. At 85 years of age, she continues to pursue her passion of addressing the need for racial and ethnic inclusion in the nursing profession as an independent consultant.

Nichols has broken barriers since entering the nursing workforce, much like the namesake of the award, Canary Savage Girardeau. Graduating from the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Boston in 1959, where she was one of just four Black students in her class, Nichols began a career in nursing during a time when many hospitals were still racially segregated.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, where she was one of just two Black students in her class. After graduation, she accepted a job at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she was the only African American registered nurse on staff. From there, she joined the Navy Nurse Corps and served as a head nurse at the U.S. Naval Hospital in St. Albans, Queens, before moving to Wisconsin, where she accepted a job at St. Mary’s Hospital – now SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital.

Nichols notes that early experiences in her career played a significant role in shaping her future. She felt her suggestions were not taken seriously because of her race, and it fueled her fire to become a nurse leader. “Nurses would say, ‘Well, who are you to tell us what to do,’” she recalled in a 2013 interview with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Sharing Nursing’s Knowledge newsletter. “That’s when I decided to get into a leadership role. It was a direct result of being ignored and of the impression I got that my ideas weren’t worthy of consideration because I was Black.”

And lead she did. In 1970, Nichols was elected president of the Wisconsin Nurses Association (WNA), making her the first African American to hold the position in the organization’s then-100-year history. Nine years later, she was elected president of the American Nurses Association (ANA), becoming the first African American to hold the national leadership role. She served two terms as president of the ANA, traveling 12,000 miles a month from coast to coast to speak on behalf of the organization. A few years later, in 1983, Nichols became the first African American woman in Wisconsin to hold a cabinet-level position when she was appointed secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, where she collaborated to create changes to Wisconsin’s Nurse Practice Act.

Throughout her career as a clinician and leader in health care, she has continually sought to further understand and address the breadth of systemic inequity faced by historically underserved and marginalized racial, ethnic, and disadvantaged communities. She has worked tirelessly to identify and eliminate root causes of health inequity, finding solutions while educating those around her. Her efforts in creating and advocating for policy change has helped advance justice and equity. Even throughout her “retirement” years, Nichols continues to work for social justice and equity in and beyond health care.

Nichols has also served as the primary consultant on diversity for the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations made in the 2010 Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health report. She then served as the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Center for Nursing/Wisconsin Action Coalition to implement the priorities laid out in said report, helping guide Wisconsin to work towards addressing barriers to quality care, including social determinants of health and systemic sources of inequity that are pervasive in health care.

Her strong conviction to bring about change where systems have failed to be inclusive, and her ability to identify needs and develop solutions helps her truly stand out. She is well known and respected for her impact on creating more diverse, inclusive, welcoming, and culturally competent workforces in nursing and other areas of health care. More importantly, she is not afraid to tackle difficult but crucial conversations. Longtime colleagues from the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, a member-owned network of non-profit hospitals, have noted that “in multiple settings we have seen Barbara hold and encourage conversations that need to be held — conversations that others often back away from. Her skill and authenticity build bridges that might otherwise have remained walls.”

The former faculty member and long-time advocate, partner, and supporter of the School of Nursing has worked to advance the nursing workforce through nursing education and policies that strengthen the profession. She founded the Wisconsin Society for Healthcare Education and Training, where she created innovative professional development curricula for nurses in the area.

She has published more than 200 manuscripts on nursing and health care delivery and received numerous awards for her work, including being inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 2022, being named as a University of Wisconsin–Madison Outstanding Woman of Color in 2018, and being honored as an American Academy of Nursing Living Legend in 2010. Nichols will also receive a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the Academy at its October 2023 health policy conference.

Canary Girardeau
Canary Savage Girardeau

Nichols’ contributions to health care through her career, the challenges she has overcome, and the numerous trails she blazed are similar to the path forged by Canary Savage Girardeau. Both have dedicated their professional expertise and service commitments to building healthier communities. Both women have broken through barriers to earn seats at the tables where their leadership, knowledge, and experience could have full effect. Both have persevered and thrived in roles where they met and advanced health needs for many decades.

The late Nancy J. Kaufman ’71, RN, MS, who served as vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, once encapsulated Barbara’s impact on reducing barriers to improve health and strengthen nursing and health care workforces. Kaufman wrote, “Barbara is a tireless advocate for disadvantaged populations and their access to quality health care. She has educated and cajoled many nursing education and health care systems on the importance of providing care in a way that acknowledges the differences in experience and culture among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups — and that care is improved when there is a diverse workforce delivering it.”

Kaufman added, “Barbara Nichols is one of the most effective advocates for health equity I have ever worked with and learned from. Her lifelong passion for diversity in the health care workforce, and especially nursing, has increased our Nation’s focus on achieving parity in health professions. Barbara’s impact on health is the result of active, visible, and vocal advocacy for practices and systems that advance equity and inclusion.”

For more information on Canary Savage Girardeau and the Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, visit