Who Was Lenah Sutcliff Higbee?
Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee was born in Chatham, New Brunswick, Canada, on May 18, 1874. She was graduated in nursing from the New York Post Graduate Hospital, in 1899, and shortly after, married Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Higbee, U. S. Marine Corps. After Colonel Higbee’s death in April 1908, she resumed her nursing career and took a post graduate course at Fordham Hospital, New York. Upon completion of this course, she was appointed Nurse in the Navy Nurse Corps, and reported for duty at the U. S. Naval Hospital, Washington, D. C. In April 1909 she was promoted to Chief Nurse, U. S. Navy, and was transferred to the Naval Hospital, Norfolk, Virginia.
On January 20, 1911, Mrs. Higbee was appointed Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps and returned to duty in Washington in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. She held this position, the second so named, until she was honorably discharged from the Naval Service, at her own request, on November 30, 1922.
For World War I Service, she was awarded the Navy Cross. Mrs. Higbee was the only woman to ever be presented the Navy Cross. The citation follows:
“For distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty as Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps.”
Mrs. Higbee died on January 10, 1941 at Winter Park, Florida, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband.
Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee served in the United States Navy from 1908-1922. For eleven of her fourteen years of service, Higbee was Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps. Chief Nurse Higbee received the Navy Cross for her leadership of the Navy Nurse Corps during World War I. She was the first female to be presented the award. A Canadian by birth, Higbee completed her formal nursing training at the New York Postgraduate Hospital in 1899 and that same year married retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel John Henley Higbee. Higbee worked in private practice following her marriage. Higbee’s husband passed in April 1908 and she advanced her nursing career by completing a post graduate course at Fordham Hospital in New York City. On 13 May 1908, Congress passed legislation allowing for the establishment of Navy Nurse Corps - the equivalent of the Army Nurse Corps established in 1901. The Navy required members of its Nurse Corps to be unmarried and between the age of 22 and 44. The thirty-six year old and widowed Higbee joined nineteen other females to make up this first group of female Navy Nurses - known as the “Sacred Twenty.” Higbee became Chief Nurse at Norfolk Naval Hospital in 1909 and the second Superintendent of the Corps in 1911. Higbee led the Nurse Corps through not only World War I, but the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Higbee was one of four Navy Nurses to be awarded the Navy Cross in 1920, however, the other three were victims of the flu and honored posthumously. Higbee retired from the Navy in 1922.
A destroyer, the USS Higbee (DD-806), was named in her honor. Her sister, Mrs. A. M. Wheaton, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada, christened the vessel, launched at the Bath Iron Works Corporation, Bath, Maine, on November 13, 1944. The USS Higbee served gallantly in the Pacific during the latter period of World War II.