The Anatomy of a Giving Heart
Elaine Marieb ’69PhD, ’85MS shaped the world of nursing in life and beyond
Elaine N. Marieb may be the most influential author you’ve never heard of—but you’ll be glad your doctor has. Best known as the author of Human Anatomy & Physiology, Marieb’s textbooks are taught in more than 2,400 classrooms around the world. Time magazine recently ranked the UMass alum the seventh most-read female writer in the college classroom, behind such literary luminaries as Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf. And though the world lost this titan in 2018, her legacy, impact, and influence continue to grow, thanks to her generous philanthropy.
In September 2021, the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation announced a gift to UMass Amherst of $21.5 million, the largest cash gift in the university’s 159-year history. One year later, UMass officially renamed its nursing school the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing in honor of the late educator and author. But this change goes deeper than a name—it marks a fundamental shift in medical innovation, putting nurses at the forefront of research and product development.
From Bedside to Benefactor
Elaine Marieb often referred to herself as an “accidental author,” and little in her humble background suggested she would go on to become one of the premier human anatomists of her time. Raised on her family’s farm in Northampton, Massachusetts, Marieb’s academic ambitions were repeatedly derailed by lack of funds. But her tenacity in pursuing a college education led to degrees from Westfield State University and Mount Holyoke College, before finishing her doctoral work at UMass in 1969. She then went on to become a professor, teaching human anatomy at several Massachusetts colleges and universities.
I knew I was sitting at the feet of someone special
Marieb established a reputation as a disciplined and intuitive classroom teacher, particularly dedicated to students interested in nursing. “I knew I was sitting at the feet of someone special,” recalls Lynn Wiedenroth, a nursing student of Marieb’s in 1975. After receiving a D on an exam, the first in her academic career, Wiedenroth approached her professor for advice. “She showed me that good studying wasn’t about memorizing all the components of muscle tissue; it was about really understanding what makes a muscle flex. The concept was the important thing,” she recalls. “With all of the knowledge she had, she respected anyone who was trying to learn—nurses, in particular.”
In addition to her classroom work, Dr. Marieb served as a chapter reviewer for a Massachusetts textbook publisher. It was there that she discovered her calling as an author. Following one review session, she handed the publisher a manuscript she had written for her courses, asking if it might be published. That led to her first work, a laboratory manual that remains a best seller 40 years later.
Emboldened by the success of her lab manual, Dr. Marieb believed she could create a more effective textbook than those she was asked to review. She went on to write what would become her seminal work, Human Anatomy & Physiology. In so doing, Marieb pioneered a new approach to textbook writing that included analogies, illustrated tables, and other graphic teaching aids. “Over a million practitioners out there, including nurses, have learned from Elaine,” says Serina Beauparlant, Marieb’s editor and publisher since 2002. “She led the shift from a textbook as a container of information to a book intended to hold a student’s hand.”
As an editor at Pearson Education, Beauparlant recalls a passionate educator with a guarded personality. “Elaine was a classic New Englander. I felt very close to her, but it took a while,” she says. But when it came to Marieb’s craft, her passion and commitment to future nurses shone. “She never took a sabbatical to write,” says Beauparlant. “She taught as she wrote. And the empathy that she felt toward her students really came through in the writing.”
First published in 1989, Human Anatomy & Physiology is now in its 11th edition, has sold more than 2 million copies to date, and shows no signs of fading. However, Marieb’s influence on future nurses and physicians didn’t stop with the publication of a renowned textbook. As a result of her writing success, the “accidental author” found a new vehicle for making change: philanthropy. During her lifetime, she made significant donations to schools in Florida and Massachusetts, and following her death in 2018, her estate made a posthumous gift to UMass Amherst of $1 million. This donation allowed the university to provide grants for nursing students and develop a state-of-the-art cytology research lab. Marieb’s impact on the UMass nursing program expanded further with a recent gift of $21.5 million from her posthumous philanthropic organization, the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation.
Doing (way) better than ‘good enough’
A portion of the transformational gift will support the Elaine Marieb UMass Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, a program focused on cutting-edge research and nurse-centered solutions. First established through seed funding from Michael Hluchyj ’76 and Theresa Hluchyj ’77 and sustained through the permanent funding provided by the Marieb estate, the center invites graduate students and other early career researchers like Postdoctoral Research Fellow Jeannine Blake ’22PhD to solve industry problems through an engineering lens.
Like Marieb, Blake cannot simply accept “good enough.” During her time as a critical care nurse in a Rhode Island hospital, Blake felt she couldn’t have the impact she wanted as a bedside nurse. “I was frustrated with aspects of my job that never worked well and realized that those things were contributing [negatively] to patient outcomes.” Her path to research brought her to the UMass nursing program, where she met Karen Giuliano, co-director for the center. Under Giuliano’s mentorship, Blake began to understand the fundamental disconnect she experienced as a practicing nurse. “Nursing is a product-heavy practice,” she explains. “But nurses typically aren’t the ones designing those products—engineers are.”
Giuliano echoes Blake’s experience, advocating for an intense collaboration between nurses and engineers in the early stages of research and product development. “Nurses have the best perspective on what works and what doesn’t, and they need to be included in the research cycle,” she explains. “That’s where we come in.” Since 2019, the center has brought the disciplines of nursing and engineering together in research and development, allowing nurses’ practical experience to be heard from the outset.
In addition to offering pilot grants for innovative work like Blake’s, UMass is using the foundation’s gift to provide scholarships to students who, like Marieb, have had their academic careers interrupted due to limited finances or other challenges. UMass history major Laura Haskell ’23 is one such student. In the 2021–2022 academic year, Haskell became one of the first two recipients of the Elaine Marieb Phoenix Fund, following an eight-year break in her education. “I’m paying for school myself, and having to balance school with work and bills is very difficult,” she says. “This scholarship lifted the financial burden and made me feel that I really can do this.”
According to Martin Wasmer, chair of the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation, the work that the estate’s gift will support is in the spirit of the icon he knew. “Elaine’s progression from educator to author was driven by the belief that the materials she was utilizing could always be better. She was an innovator from day one [...] and the work of the Center for Nursing and Engineering is in alignment with who she was as an educator,” says Wasmer.
Beauparlant also sees a direct line from the powerful educator she knew to the impact of Marieb’s philanthropy today. “If someone was motivated and worked hard, she would always extend an open hand. And she was always looking for institutions who would be good partners in making a difference,” says Beauparlant. “I have no doubt she’s looking down at the work being done in her name and is very happy.”
On September 12, 2022, the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing came together to celebrate its renaming with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony. In addition to having the new name of the college on the exterior of the building, Marieb was honored with her portrait and a quotation featured in the entranceway. The celebration included speakers, a tour of the building, and a performance by the UMass jazz band to honor Marieb’s love of jazz music both as a listener and a singer.