Sunday, March 2, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nursing-school dean Marie Cowan, 69, was "living legend"

Seattle Times staff reporter

Marie Cowan was a champion multitasker long before the term became popular.

She conducted groundbreaking cardiovascular research, yet she found the time to lead her daughters' Brownie troop and shuttle her son to sporting events. She mentored colleagues and students while a professor of nursing, pathology and cardiology at the University of Washington, yet still managed to drive her kids to school in the morning, help them with homework and get her family to church each week.

"She had the energy level of 10 people," said Kathy Harris, of Lynnwood, one of her two daughters. "If there was a will to do something, Mom would find a way to make it happen."

"She lived many lifetimes in her one."

Marie Jeanette (Johnson) Cowan died Feb. 22 after a 10-year battle with metastatic colon cancer. She was 69, and, true to form, continued working on campus at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was nursing-school dean, until days before her death.

During her 46-year nursing career she published 110 articles in peer-reviewed journals, served on the first National Institutes of Health peer-review group for her profession, chaired the cardiovascular nursing council of the American Heart Association and was credited with restoring the UCLA nursing school's reputation as one of the top 10 in the nation.

The American Academy of Nursing recently named Mrs. Cowan a Living Legend to honor her as an extraordinary role model within the profession and a nursing-research pioneer.

"She did all of this while raising three children and having a very close and warm family life. She always had time for her friends," said longtime colleague Nancy Woods, dean of the UW School of Nursing. "When my husband and I became parents — we actually adopted our daughter and only had 48 hours before we found out we were to become parents — she was the one who arranged the baby shower."

Born July 20, 1938, in Albuquerque, N.M., Mrs. Cowan earned her nursing diploma at Mary's Help Nursing School in San Francisco and married her husband of 46 years, Samuel Joseph Cowan, the day after graduation.

She continued her education at the University of Washington, where she ultimately earned a doctorate in pathology, physiology and biophysics. She landed her first academic post in 1972 at Seattle University's nursing school and joined the UW's nursing and medical schools in 1979, where she became a professor and was appointed dean of nursing research.

Mrs. Cowan joined UCLA as nursing school dean in 1997, where she recruited 22 researchers to double the size of the faculty, developed the first University of California online-degree program in nursing administration and set up a bioscience curriculum for the doctorate nursing degree.

The 6-foot-2 redhead commanded respect from men and women alike at a time when females weren't always welcomed into medicine, especially in cardiology, one of her many fields of interest, Woods said.

"I'm sure, in part, it was because she was so very smart," Woods said. "But she also had a way of being disarming because she was so willing to acknowledge people for what they could bring to a situation."

In addition to her husband and daughter, Cowan is survived by son S. Joseph Cowan Jr., of Colorado; daughter Michelle Schaffner, of California; sister Dee Herrman, of Albuquerque; brothers Jim Johnson, of Texas, and the Rev. Jerry Johnson, of New Mexico; and five grandchildren.

Services will be held at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Los Angeles. The rosary will be said March 7, with a funeral Mass the following morning at 11. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations (payable to the UCLA Foundation) to the Dean Marie J. Cowan Endowed Scholarship Fund, c/o the UCLA School of Nursing, Box 951702, Los Angeles, CA 90015-1407.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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