WASHINGTON -- Rhetaugh Etheldra Graves Dumas, a former deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health and a dean at the University of Michigan, died of cancer July 22 at a hospice in Houston. She was 78.
Dr. Dumas was the first woman, the first nurse, and the first African-American to serve as a deputy director at NIMH, part of the National Institutes of Health. She led the division of manpower and training programs from 1979 to 1981 and urged that training address unserved and under-served populations.
Her career took her from her first job as a substitute teacher and nurse in the segregated schools of Natchez, Miss., in the 1950s to dean and vice provost at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. President Clinton appointed her to his National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
A Natchez native, she knew that her mother had aspired to nursing but that no nearby nursing schools admitted African-Americans, and her family was too poor to send her away. So Dr. Dumas was given early career guidance.
"From infancy, I was told that when I grew up, I was going to be a nurse, not just an ordinary nurse, mind you, but one who would be admired by people all around the country -- not only for her personal achievements, but more importantly, for her contributions toward improving the welfare of others," she told Columbia University health sciences graduates in a 2003 commencement address.
She graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans in 1951 with a degree in nursing and took a job as a substitute teacher, combining it with her skills as a nurse.
Six years later, she became an instructor at her alma mater. By 1961, she had received a master's degree in psychiatric nursing from Yale University.
The following year, she joined the faculty of Yale and rose to associate professor and chairwoman of psychiatric nursing at the Yale School of Nursing. She received a doctorate in nursing in 1975 from the Union Institute, a distance-learning university based in Cincinnati.
Dr. Dumas moved to the Washington area in 1972 to work at the NIMH in Rockville, Md. In 1979, she was appointed by Patricia Roberts Harris, secretary of Health and Human Services, to the position of deputy director.
She joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1981 as dean of its School of Nursing, a job she retained until 1994, when she was named vice provost and the Lucille Cole Professor of Nursing.
She was a founding member and former president of the American Academy of Nursing and wrote an influential research paper, "The Effect of Nursing Care on Postoperative Vomiting." She also wrote the oft-cited "Dilemmas of Black Females in Leadership" in 1980.