From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
It was two years after World War I’s Armistice Day when four women made history by being awarded the Navy Cross Nov. 11, 1920. All were being recognized for their service and devotion to duty during World War I but only one woman could attend, the other three were given their medals posthumously. Their deaths, however, did not come from wounds suffered in battle in the European Theater of the Great War. Something more deadly struck Navy nurses Mary Louise Hidell, Edna E. Place and Lillian Louise Murphy in the fall of 1918 – Spanish Flu. None of them would live to rejoice in the original Armistice Day of 1918.
And so it was on that second anniversary, that Chief Nurse Lenah Sutcliff Higbee became the first living woman to receive the honor for what the Navy Cross citation describes as “distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty as superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps.”
Distinguished, indeed. She completed nurses’ training at the New York Postgraduate Hospital in 1899 at the age of 25. That was the same year she married retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. John Henley Higbee, 36 years her senior, whose wife, Isabelle, had died suddenly the year before.
After graduation, the newly-married Higbee worked in private practice. Then in May 13, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Naval Appropriations Bill authorizing the establishment of the Navy Nurse Corps as a unique staff corps in the Navy. Five days later, Lenah Higbee’s husband died on her 34th birthday.
Now a widow, Higbee may have been spurred to be among the first 20 Navy nurses in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps in Oct. 1908, a group of women who became known as the “Sacred Twenty.” At that time, the Navy Medical Department was comprised of Medical Corps Officers and Hospital Corpsmen (then referred to as Hospital Stewards and Hospital Apprentices). Unlike their physician counterparts, the first nurses did not hold rank and they weren’t particularly welcome.
In 1909, Higbee was promoted to Chief Nurse at Norfolk Naval Hospital, and in 1911 she became the second Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, serving throughout the duration of World War I, including the pandemic known as the Spanish Flu.
In 1918 alone, 121,225 Navy and Marine Corps patients were admitted at Navy medical facilities with influenza. Of these patients, 4,158 died of the virus, including some who cared for those patients: Navy nurses Marie Louise Hidell (Naval Hospital Philadelphia, Penn.), Edna Place (Philadelphia, Penn.) and Lillian Murphy (Hampton Roads, Va.). They, too, were awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously, on Nov. 11, 1920, along with Higbee.
After 14 years in the Navy, Higbee retired in Nov. 1922. She died after a sudden illness in Winter Park, Fla., on Jan. 10, 1941, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The following year, Navy nurses were granted “relative rank” on July 3, 1942, and “full military rank” Feb. 26, 1944. Higbee’s naval service was commemorated that same year when a ship was named in her honor. USS Higbee (DD-806), commissioned in 1945, was the first U.S. Navy combat ship to bear the name of a female member of the Naval service.
After becoming a federal holiday in 1921, Armistice Day became Veterans Day Nov. 11, 1954.