Last fall, Ann Wolbert Burgess was named a Living Legend by the American Academy of Nursing. It’s a fitting honor for a nurse who has spent decades studying victims of trauma and abuse and the perpetrators of those crimes, in addition to working alongside the FBI and testifying as an expert in the courtroom. She has also written numerous articles and books and currently teaches forensics at Boston College.
Burgess earned her doctorate in psychiatric nursing from Boston University, and thought she’d ultimately be a nurse psychotherapist—but her career path took a different turn than she expected. In the early 1970s, motivated by the feminist movement, Burgess and her colleague Lynda Lytle Holmstrom started one of the first hospital-based crisis counseling programs for rape victims, at Boston City Hospital.
The program enabled nurses to provide counseling to rape victims, and allowed Burgess and Holmstrom to conduct research on rape victimology. Their research led them to write a groundbreaking paper in 1974 that introduced what they called “rape trauma syndrome,” describing its symptoms as well as approaches for counseling victims. The identification of this syndrome helped pave a pathway for rape victims’ needs to be met, and has also since influenced many legal decisions.
Around that time, Burgess authored an article in AJN, “The Rape Victim in the Emergency Ward,” that led to a partnership with the FBI. An ED nurse who read the article recommended Burgess to an FBI agent who had been tasked with training special agents on rape victimology. Burgess was invited to lecture on the topic, and went on to work with the agency to study and profile serial killers in prison. She’s also conducted research in many other areas related to victimology: among them, child abuse, elder sexual abuse, kidnapping, cyber crimes, military sexual trauma, and campus sexual assault.
In her current research, Burgess is focused on veterans. Recently, she implemented the College Warrior Athlete Initiative at Boston College, which pairs student athletes with wounded veterans to help improve their health. She’s now working on expanding the program to other colleges.
For more on Burgess’s work—and her advice on how nurses can help victims of trauma and abuse—see our February Profiles column (free until February 27).