The “Sacred Twenty”: The Navy’s First Nurses

"The Sacred Twenty" Front row (left to right): Mary Dubose, Adah M. Pendleton, Elizabeth M. Hewitt, Della V. Knight, J. Beatrice Bowman, Lenah S. Higbee, Esther V. Hasson, Martha E. Pringle, Elizabeth Wells, Sara B. Myer, and Clare L. DeCeu. Back row: Elisabeth Leonhardt, Estelle Hine, Ethel R. Parsons, Florence Milburn, Boniface Small, Victoria White, Isabelle Roy, Margaret Murray and Sara Cox. (Credit: BUMED Library and Archives)

By André B. Sobocinski, Navy Medicine Office of the Historian

May 13th marks the 104th anniversary of the Navy Nurse Corps.

On May 13, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Naval Appropriations Bill authorizing the establishment of the Nurse Corps as a unique staff corps in the Navy.     Initially, all Nurse Corps candidates were required to travel to Washington, D.C., at their own expense and take an oral and written examination.  Since many applicants expressed reluctance to travel at their own expense, U.S. Navy Surgeon General Presley Rixey ordered that applicants be allowed to submit an original essay on the topic of “nursing practices” by mail, in lieu of an onsite written examination.

The nucleus of this new Navy 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.”

Beatrice Bowman, one of these pioneering nurses, and later superintendent of the Nurse Corps, recalled that these “nurses were assigned to duty at the Naval Hospital, Washington, D.C. 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.”

The First Portrait

In October 1908, the first portrait of these plank owner nurses was taken in front of Naval 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.


In 1908, 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.  Navy nurses were not granted “relative rank” until July 3, 1942.  Nurse Corps officers were finally granted “full military rank” on February 26, 1944.

Roles in Navy Medicine

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, N.Y., and Mare Island, Calif., 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.

Their original quarters were located in a rented house on 21st Street, N.W., only a few blocks away from the Naval Hospital.