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On May 13, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Naval Appropriations Bill that authorized the establishment of the Nurse Corps as a unique component of the Navy. Applications to the Nurse Corps were sent to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery from around the nation. Candidates were required to travel to Washington, DC, at their own expense and take an oral and written examination. The nucleus of this new Nurse Corps was a superintendent
(Esther Hasson), a chief nurse (Lenah Higbee), and 18 other women—all would forever be remembered as the “Sacred Twenty.”
The average age of the first twenty nurses was 34 years old (youngest =25, oldest =49).
The Sacred Twenty represented 11 U.S. States, the District of Columbia, and Canada.
Place of Origin: Maryland (5), Pennsylvania (3), Canada (3), Washington, DC (1), Indiana (1), Iowa (1), Michigan (1), New Jersey (1), New Hampshire (1), New York (1), Tennessee (1) and Wisconsin (1).
The Sacred Twenty would serve an average length of 11.15 years in the Navy.
Naval Hospital (sometimes known as the Naval Medical School Hospital) Washington, DC would serve as the first duty station for all of the Sacred Twenty. By 1909, several of the nurses would transfer to other medical facilities around the country (e.g., Naval Hospitals Norfolk, VA, Mare Island, CA, Brooklyn, NY, et al.)
Josephine Beatrice Bowman, third Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps, was born in Des Moines, Iowa on December 19, 1881. Miss Bowman's nursing education began in 1901 when she entered the Training School for Nurses at the Medico-Surgical Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from which she graduated in 1904. She then enrolled with the American Red Cross Nursing Service.
On October 3, 1908, Miss Bowman took the oath of office in the Navy Nurse Corps, being among the first twenty nurses appointed for the newly created Navy Nurse Corps. She was promoted to Chief Nurse on February 23, 1911. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Miss Bowman was on duty in the Orient. She was recalled in November to assume the position of Chief Nurse at U.S. Naval Hospital, Great Lakes. On May 5, 1920, Chief Nurse Bowman was ordered to the USS Relief, a newly commissioned hospital ship.
Upon the resignation of Mrs. Lenah S. Higbee, Miss Bowman was appointed Superintendent of the Nurse Corps on December 1, 1922. Throughout her administration, she was active in all professional affairs and succeeded in bringing about many progressive nursing innovations. Among her accomplishments was the establishment of post graduate courses for specially selected members of the Corps.
The first Chief Nurse in the Navy, Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee would replace Hasson as Superintendent in 1911. Higbee would serve a total of 11 years as the Navy’s top nurse leading the Corps through one of its largest expansions (160 in April 1917 to 1,386 by the Armistice in November 1918), overseeing the development of the first operational nurse training school (Vassar Training School), and serving at the helm of helm the Nurse Corps during one of its most challenging obstacles (the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918). Higbee would later earn the distinction of being the only living Navy nurse awarded the Navy Cross (November 11, 1920) and the first American nurse to have a ship named after her (USS Lenah Higbee, DDR-806).
Esther Voorhees Hasson served as a "contract nurse, U.S. Army" and was assigned to the hospital ship Relief from July 1, 1898 to November 14, 1899. She was then transferred to the U.S. Army transport ship Sherman for duty en-route to the Philippines. When the Navy Nurse Corps was established in 1908, Miss Hasson was appointed as the first Superintendent by the acting Secretary of the Navy on August 17, 1908. The appointment read as follows:
“Upon the recommendation of the Surgeon General of the Navy you are hereby appointed as Superintendent of the Nurse Corps (female) of the United States Navy, receive the same pay, allowances, emoluments and privileges as are now or may hereafter be provided by or in pursuance of law for the Nurse Corps (female) of the Army."
Hasson’s oath of office was executed on August 18, 1908 "with pay at the rate of $1800 per annum." Miss Hasson served as Superintendent until she requested resignation that was accepted on January 16, 1911. She then transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve and was attached to the U.S. Army Base Hospital in France. Miss Hasson remained in the U.S. Army Reserve until approximately 1917. She subsequently worked for the U.S. Veterans Bureau in Palo Alto, CA, until she retired from nursing in April 1924 with the statement to Miss Bowman, then Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps that: "As the Tommies overseas used to say, I am fed up with the Veterans Bureau and long to get back to a more refined atmosphere."
In October 1908, the first portrait of these plank owner nurses was taken in front of Naval Hospital (sometimes Navy Medical School Hospital) Washington, D.C. (main hospital building). This building would later become the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery’s “Building Three.” The picture featured one current and two future superintendents of the Nurse Corps. Collectively, Esther Hasson, Lenah Higbee and Beatrice Bowman would account for 27 years of Nurse Corps leadership.
J. Beatrice Bowman, one of these pioneers and later superintendent of the Nurse Corps, recalled that her fellow “nurses were assigned to duty at the Naval Hospital, Washington, DC. There were no quarters for them but they were given an allowance for quarters and subsistence. They rented a house and ran their own mess. These pioneers were no more welcome to most of the personnel of the Navy, than women are when invading what a man calls his domain.”
One of the founding members of the Sacred Twenty, Lenah Higbee would write that in order to succeed in the Navy, nurses “must have an open mind, must encourage deep interest in the Naval Service and must possess the common sense to realize that a adaptability necessary for success must be in the individual since a Military Service cannot adapt itself to a person or persons.”
What did Sacred Twenty think about the future of the Navy Nurse Corps? The first leader of the Navy Nurse Corps, Esther Hasson would posit: “Undoubtedly the future status of the Nurse Corps will rest largely in the hands of its members, and especially is this true of the first nurses. If they are content with low standards professionally, morally, or socially the status of the corps will be fixed for all time. Future women will accept the standard set by us now without question; if it be high they will rise to it, if it be low they will with equal facility drop to its level.”
In 1908, the Navy Medical Department was composed 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. Navy nurses were not granted “relative rank” until July 3, 1942. Nurse Corps officers were finally granted “full military rank” on February 26, 1944.
Their original quarters were located in a rented house on 21st Street, N.W., only a few blocks away from the Naval Hospital. Later, the nurse would relocate the Naval Hospital in a building later to house the offices of the Navy Surgeon General, Deputy Surgeon General, and Force Master Chief.
Until 1909, all Navy nurses had the choice of one duty station, Naval Hospital Washington, D.C. (sometimes referred to as the Navy Medical School Hospital). In 1909, BUMED began detailing its Navy Nurse Corps to medical facilities outside of Washington, D.C. Naval Hospitals Annapolis, Md., Brooklyn, NY, and Mare Island, CA., were among the first hospitals to receive nurses. In spring 1909, Surgeon James Leys, commanding officer, Naval Hospital Norfolk, VA, requested BUMED to send “nurses” to his hospital. When three female nurses (Lenah Higbee, Ethel Swann, and Mary Nelson) reported for duty Surgeon Leys was aghast. He had fully expected to receive male hospital corpsmen and did not know how they could work in a hospital without a single female patient.
Naval Hospitals Canacao, P.I., Guam, Tutuila, Samoa, and Yokohama Japan were the first OCONUS duty stations open to Navy nurses.
In October 1908, BUMED established a 5-month systematic course of instruction for the first nurses in the Navy. The course consisted of demonstrations and lectures on nursing and service conditions at home and abroad, care of sick on hospital ships, nursing of tropical diseases, naval hygiene, requirements of hospitals and hospital ships, first aid and emergencies, bacteriology of air and skin in relation to surgical cleanliness, and methods of sterilization. This instruction was supplemented by practical work in the dispensary and laboratory and a series of lectures by Esther Hasson on “military nursing,” as well as “ethics and etiquette.”
In fiscal year 1909, BUMED received 557 written requests for information about the Navy Nurse Corps and 116 applications. Of the 116 applicants, 36 were appointed to the Navy Nurse Corps.
All applicants had to be a graduate of a general hospital (nursing) school and have clinical experience in medical, surgical, care of men, and contagious diseases.
A Navy nurse could be discharged from the Navy for any of the following reasons: her services were no longer needed; physical disability interfering with her ability to perform her job; and misconduct.
In 1908, the Sacred Twenty duty hours were seven days a week in shifts of 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.